The killing of eight soldiers yesterday in western Tunisia has led to calls for investigation and national solidarity from Tunisian political leaders, and heightened tensions among Tunisians living near the scene of the attack.
The soldiers were shot and killed in an ambush after a landmine exploded on Chaambi mountain in the Kasserine governorate, where the Tunisian military has been pursuing a group of militants since the spring.
According to radio station Mosaique FM, the bodies of five of the eight soldiers were mutilated. The coroner determined the time of death to be around 6 p.m.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense stated that the ambush took place as one patrol was preparing to rotate in for another. The exploded mine was planted in a zone that had already been searched by the army, suggesting it was placed recently.
President Moncef Marzouki, the commander-in-chief of the Tunisian armed forces, announced a three-day national mourning period to commemorate the soldiers. He also called on Tunisians to be united.
“Tunisia is targeted for its political regime, for its lifestyle, for its religion, for its moderate Islam,” he said, calling the killings atrocious.
In a press statement, the ruling Ennahdha party called for a state of mourning nationwide and a state funeral for the fallen soldiers.
Ennahdha echoed calls for national unity and reaffirmed its determination to fight violence and terrorism.
The battle against terrorism definitely has its price and we offer sincere condolences to the families of the martyrs as well as the entire Tunisian people,” the statement said.
A delegation composed of President Marzouki, Defense Minister Rachid Sabbagh, and newly-appointed army chief Mohamed Salah Hamdi attended a memorial for the soldiers today at a military base in Kasserine. The soldiers’ bodies were transported in eight vehicles from the Kasserine hospital to the military base.
According to Mosaique FM, Algerian authorities believe that a militant group headed by Kamel Ben Arbia, who is known as Abou Fida, is responsible of the attack. Arbia was arrested last week by Algerian authorities, who believe Monday’s attack was a response to the arrest.
Algerian investigators assert that Abu Fida works as intermediary between Algerian and Tunisian militant groups operating on Chaambi mountain, Mosaique FM reported. Algerian authorities also say that Abu Fida admitted being a member of al-Qaeda and threatened that his followers will conduct more attacks during Ramadan, a month of fasting that will end early next month.
Algerian authorities had recently declared a state of emergency on the Tunisian-Algerian border following Abu Fida’s arrest, which authorities say was the result of intelligence coordination between Tunisia and Algeria, according to Mosaique FM.
Alaya Allani, a specialist in North African Islamic groups, also told radio station Shems FM he believes al-Qaeda is involved in the Chaambi incident. Terrorist activity in Tunisia has grown recently, according to Allani, including the killing of a police officer in Jbel Jloud, a suburb of Tunis, in May and the attack on Chaambi mountain.
Allani linked foreign groups in the attacks.
Terrorism in Tunisia obeys internal and foreign agendas. That's why religious groups in Tunisia must be investigated,” he told Shems FM.
The murders aggravated tensions in the town of Kasserine, which lies near Chaambi mountain.
Following the incident, protesters marched from the hospital to the city center.
According to Mahjoub Kahri, a doctor and resident of Kasserine, the march quickly turned into conflicts between two neighborhoods in Kasserine and the police had to intervene to separate the two groups.”
Boys belonging to the Popular Front attacked Ennahdha headquarters and tried to break in. The attack had been planned,” he said.
Nissaf Slama is a previous author and producer with Tunisia Live. Nissaf, who graduated from the Preparatory Institute of English Literary Studies of Tunis in 2012, joined TL early 2013 where she covered political, cultural and civil society stories. Ever since, Nissaf collaborated with the New York Times and Al Jazeera English. Nissaf also interned with the Human Rights Watch where she covered Transitional Justice sexual minorities in Tunisia. Nissaf also worked with Peace Direct's Insight On Conflict as a local peacebuilding expert. Now, Nissaf works with the International Organization for Migration- Libya.