TUNIS // Tunisian special forces are combing minefields in forests around Mount Chaambi on the Algerian-Tunisian border in a search for a militant group, after 10 special forces members were wounded by homemade bombs in the past week.
The operation underscores the threat posed by extremist groups in the country, which Western and local security experts say have links with more established bodies including Al Qaeda, and groups in Libya and Syria.
According to security sources speaking to the state news agency, a "terror group" is hiding in the thick forests around the mountain, which is near the town of Kasserine.
The news agency said that the minesweeping operation began at noon on Wednesday, using heavy and light weaponry, and would likely take "a long time" but would ultimately surround the group, according to a ministry of defence spokesman. Photographs showed helicopters, dogs and masked men engaged in the operations.
Four of the troops wounded by mines sustained serious injury, including the loss of limbs, and three of them were visited in hospital by the prime minister, Ali Larayedh, on Wednesday.
The armed group is commanded by an Algerian and two Tunisians, according to a security source quoted in the Algerian daily newspaper El Watan. The same source said that Tunisian forces had been trying since December to dismantle the group, which was initially composed of 11 members and was thought to be responsible for the death of a Tunisian policeman after clashes in December last year.
Since then, El Watan reported, the group has recruited from the area and among Tunisians who have returned from fighting in Mali, and now numbers about 50.
Tunisian authorities think that as many as 500 hardline Tunisian Salafist Muslims went to northern Mali to participate in the violent occupation of the north of the country with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and related groups.
However, Tunisian interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou told Nessma television on May 1 that the group numbered 15 and said that another group was also operating nearby.
Tunisian authorities believe that thousands of Tunisians have gone to fight in Syria against the government of president Bashar Al Assad.
A similar incident happened in 2006, when five Tunisians and a Mauritanian entered Tunisia from Algeria with the aim of establishing a nationwide militant movement. They were crushed, with numerous casualties, by government forces.
Since an uprising swept away president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali two years ago, extreme Islamists have grown in strength, with the moderate Islamists, who dominate the government, treading a fine line between appeasing hardline ideologues and taking a firm stand against known terror threats.