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Tunisia's military chief resigns

Admired for his role during the uprising that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, General Rachid Ammar has presided over a troubled time for the Tunisian army.

TUNIS // Tunisia's military chief has resigned as the armed forces struggle to contain a growing terrorist threat in the country.

General Rachid Ammar made the announcement on a private Tunisian television channel, citing the fact that he was, at 67, seven years over the military retirement age.

Admired for his role during the uprising that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Gen Ammar has presided over a troubled time for the Tunisian army.

After the uprisings in Tunisia and in neighbouring Libya, where an internationally backed rebellion felled Muammar Qaddafi, growing regional security problems have forced the army to assume a more prominent role.

Security sources say that every month dozens of arms shipments pass along smuggling routes through the desert in southern Tunisia between extremist groups based in Libya and neighbouring Algeria. A Tunisian-Algerian extremist group based near the town of Kasserine laid dozens of landmines, which have killed at least two soldiers this year.

Gen Ammar defended his handling of the extremists, who were hiding around Mount Chaambi in south-west Tunisia, on the border with Algeria, and blamed "failure in the chain of intelligence" for difficulties in tracking them down.

"Tunisia is targeted by Al Qaeda," he said, adding that the militants had financing and weapons.

"Tunisia could see the same fate as Somalia" if the extremists are not rooted out, he said.

In January 2011, the general reportedly refused orders to fire on protesters calling for Ben Ali to step down, and was subsequently hailed as a hero after the departure of the president.

Later that month, he addressed a cheering crowd of demonstrators, assuring them that the army would be the guarantor of the constitution and of the "revolution", according to Tunisian media.

But he warned the people gathered outside the government buildings even then: "Your demands are legitimate, but I would like this place to be empty, so that the government works … vacuum creates terror, which generates dictatorship."

Under Ben Ali, and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, the Tunisian army held far less political power or military capacity than virtually any other in the militarised Arab world. Bourguiba sought to emulate the French civil state and also, say academics, aimed to limit the risk of a military coup by weakening his army.

Gen Ammar has been criticised by some politicians for failing to prevent instances of terrorism. However, said Derek Lutterbeck of the University of Malta, who has written on security sector reform in Tunisia, the army he headed suffers from historical weakness in the face of growing threats.

"What I am hearing is that their equipment is out of date, and they are underequipped," he said.

"And when it comes to terrorism, it is a matter of expertise. In Algeria, they have had to deal with this for 20 years, but in Tunisia, it's a new phenomenon. It's the novelty of this challenge. They seem to be struggling with it."

There have also been moments of tension between the dominant Ennahda party and the military. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi was secretly filmed last year saying that the army was in the hands of secularists, and "cannot be guaranteed".

afordham@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press

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