Troops, militants clash in western Tunisia

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s military led air strikes and deployed infantry troops in a western mountain region on Friday in a large-scale operation following overnight clashes with suspected militants linked to al-Qaida’s north Africa branch, officials said.

Defense Ministry spokesman Tawfik Rahmouni, speaking on Mosaique FM radio, said Tunisian forces were coordinating with Algeria’s military, which has boosted its deployment on the other side of the border.

At around dawn, F-5 combat jets carried out air strikes in Jebel Chaambi National Park, in an area near where 8 soldiers were ambushed and killed this week, following a gunfight overnight, the state news agency TAP reported.

TAP said infantry forces, military engineering crews and special forces backed by attack airplanes, helicopters and heavy artillery were in action. The agency also said that security forces were cordoning off the area, sweeping through villages and filtering access routes into the nearby city of Kasserine.

Authorities have said the area is a base for about 30 militants linked to Ansar al-Shariah — a local movement of ultraconservative Muslims with alleged links to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. TAP, citing its own interview with Rahmouni, said the operation Friday was targeting about 20 suspected “terrorist elements.”

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