Tunisia thwarts Sahara arms smugglers
By Monia Ghanmi for Magharebia in Tunis – 12/06/28
Tunisia is cracking down on weapons smuggling in the Saharan tri-border area.
During routine patrol operations to comb the region for arms trafficking and terrorist activity, the Tunisian Army, on June 20th, bombed three vehicles and two tents in the Remada area of Tataouine province, close to the border with Algeria and Libya, Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi confirmed on Friday (June 22nd).
An inspection at the site of the airstrike revealed six sets footprints heading southwest toward Algeria, weapon shells, machine guns, two portable missile launchers, three rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition, Motorola radios and a GPS device, according to a defence ministry communiqué.
The release indicated that sweep and search operations are still on-going in the vast Tunisian Sahara region that comprises about 30% of the country.
The vehicles, loaded with weapons and suspected to be from Libya heading toward Algeria, openly fired on a Tunisian military aircraft as it patrolled the border. The aircraft returned fire and the vehicles were destroyed.
The incident marks the third time that the Tunisian Army confronted armed groups most likely affiliated with terrorist organisation al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A May 2011 confrontation in Siliana province and a February 2012 operation in Sfax province resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and four terrorists.
Tunisia is trying to put an end to smuggling and other terrorist activity in the Tunisian Sahara corridor before it becomes a strategic passage for armed groups, an AQIM stronghold or a site for jihadist training camps.
Tunisian security forces are working day and night to secure the borders and to thwart the smuggling and exchange of weapons, ammunition and explosives from neighbouring Libya as well as those associated with the Mali crisis, Colonel Mohamed Bousnina of the Tunisian Defence Ministry said at a Friday (June 22nd) Amnesty International seminar focused on the topic of “Regulating the Arms Trade”.
Border town residents showed concern over the clashes.
"These incidents raise fears— fears that terrorist may become an endemic presence in our cities and establish strongholds in our deserts," resident Aymen Mnihli said.
In his opinion, Tunisia alone is not able to go to war with these desert-roving armed terrorists. The issue requires co-operation and co-ordination with neighbouring countries that are threatened by the same dangers, he said.
Libya shares a 500 km border with Tunisia and its border with Algeria is double that size.
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