Tunisian police arrested a senior leader from a banned Islamist group and killed two other militants during a raid near the capital Tunis, authorities said on Monday.
Tunisia’s government, led by moderate Ennahda Islamists in coalition with two smaller secular parties, is under popular pressure to crack down on security threats posed by Islamist militants to help safeguard its transition towards democracy.
Ennahda responded two weeks ago by declaring the banned group Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization and blaming it for the assassination of two secular opposition leaders as it seeks to blunt calls to step aside for new elections, Reuters reports.
“Police killed two Ansar al-Sharia militants and arrested two senior officials in the group, including the group’s military commander, Mohammed al-Awadi, in Mornagia near Tunis,” a senior official in the Interior Ministry told Reuters.
Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge in Tunisia since the 2011 uprising that ousted autocratic President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and triggered a wave of Arab Spring revolts.
Awadi is considered the group’s second in command after Saifallah Benahssine, known as Abu Iyadh, a former al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan sought by authorities on charges he incited an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in 2012.
Ennahda’s crackdown on the radical movement has increased concerns over a potential armed confrontation with Ansar al-Sharia, whose followers dismiss Tunisian government accusations that it has links to al Qaeda in North Africa.
Many Salafists were jailed under Ben Ali, but their emergence after his downfall worries Tunisia’s secular elite, especially after Salafists attacked cinemas and wine vendors and burned Sufi Muslim shrines.