Tunisia hunts jihadists after deadly raid near Libya border

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Tunis (AFP)

Tunisian security forces hunted for jihadists near the Libyan border on Tuesday after a deadly raid the authorities described as an "unprecedented" assault by the Islamic State group.

Prime Minister Habib Essid said about 50 extremists were believed to have taken part in Monday's coordinated dawn attacks on an army barracks and police and National Guard posts in the border town of Ben Guerdane.

He said that 36 attackers had been killed and seven captured in a fierce firefight that also saw the deaths of seven civilians and 12 security force personnel.

Essid told a news conference that the militants "murdered one internal security force member in his own home".

He said three civilians and 14 security personnel were also wounded.

"The (security forces') reaction was rapid and strong. We won a battle and are prepared for any others," Essid said.

"Now they know Tunisia is no easy pushover and that it is not so simple to set up an emirate in Ben Guerdane."

On Monday, Essid said that the operation's aim had been to create a "Daesh (IS) emirate" in the town.

Interior ministry spokesman Yasser Mesbah said the search for any militants still at large was continuing in the border area.

He said a nighttime curfew imposed in the town after the attack had been well respected and that the situation was "stable".

Essid also called for vigilance, saying that Tunisia was waging "total war against terrorism".

Asked how the jihadists could have mounted such an assault on the town, the premier promised a "thorough assessment" of Monday's events.

"There are lessons to be learned from this terrorist attack. There will be a thorough assessment of what happened, and we will draw all the conclusions," Essid said.

"It may be that there was a failure at a certain level, that of intelligence, other elements," he said.

- 'It's war!' -

President Beji Caid Essebsi had said on Monday the "unprecedented" jihadist attack was "maybe aimed at controlling" the border region and vowed to "exterminate these rats".

Residents told AFP the assailants appeared to be natives of the region.

They stopped people, checked their ID cards apparently to seek out members of the security forces, and announced their brief takeover of Ben Guerdane as "liberators".

Press reaction to Monday's events was both bullish and cautionary.

The French-language Le Quotidien warned of "The threat of sleeper cells" of jihadists, while Al Maghreb trumpeted "It's war!" on its front page.

Another daily, Le Temps, said the attacks may "mark a turning point in the terrorists' strategy towards our country".

It urged thought into "another approach in both judicial and security inquiries into any case with terrorist connotations".

Late Monday, US State Department spokesman John Kirby condemned the "cowardly attack" and offered fresh US help to Tunis, while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attack "once more demonstrates the gravity of the threat faced by Tunisia".

On Tuesday the authorities said the situation in Ben Guerdane was "stable", and that "large quantities" of arms and ammunition had been recovered.

It was the second deadly clash in the border area in less than a week as Tunisia battles to prevent the large number of its citizens who have joined IS in Libya from returning to carry out attacks at home.

Two deadly IS attacks on foreign tourists last year that have dealt a devastating blow to Tunisia's tourism industry are believed to have been planned from Libya.

Jihadists have taken advantage of a power vacuum in Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011 to set up bases in several areas, including near Sabratha between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.

A US air strike on an IS training camp outside Sabratha last month killed dozens of Tunisian militants, including the suspected mastermind of two of last year's attacks, Noureddine Chouchane.

Tunisia has built a 200-kilometre (125-mile) barrier that stretches about half the length of its border with Libya in an attempt to stop militant incursions.