x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Tunisia security blocks Salafist conference

About 11,000 police officers and soldiers blocked an annual conference yesterday at Tunisia's main religious centre by a radical Islamist movement that has been implicated in attacks across the country.

KAIROUAN // About 11,000 police officers and soldiers blocked an annual conference yesterday at Tunisia's main religious centre by a radical Islamist movement that has been implicated in attacks across the country.

Security checkpoints were in place and patrols conducted throughout Kairouan after authorities declared the conference by ultraconservative Muslim group Ansar Al Shariah a threat "to security and public order."

Police briefly scuffled with stone-throwing young men in downtown and fired tear gas to disperse them.

The leader of Ansar Al Shariah, Seifallah Ben Hassine is wanted for his involvement in a mob attack on the US embassy in September and his followers have been accused of attacking art galleries, police stations and cinemas.

The robust response to the conference by security forces is unprecedented since the 2011 overthrow of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who presided over a strong police state.

The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, has long been accused by the opposition of being lax with attacks by ultraconservative Muslims, called salafis, on what they deem to be impious in the country.

Ansar Al Shariah's combative rhetoric, however, appears to have united the country against it. In a national dialogue conference involving unions, civil society and political parties on Thursday, Ansar Al Shariah was widely condemned. The discovery of Al Qaida-linked militants in mountains along the Algerian border also alarmed people.

The spokesman of Ansar Al Shariah, Seifeddine Rais, was detained by authorities yesterday morning and an attempt by hundreds of salafis to hold a rally in a lower income Tunisian suburb was also dispersed by tear gas.

Mr Rais on Thursday said authorities would bear responsibility for any blood spilt if they tried to ban the conference.