TUNIS Tunisian security forces have killed 10 Islamist militants near the border with Algeria during a three-day operation against gunmen who attacked police patrols in the remote northern region, the government said on Saturday.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said the militants belonged to Ansar al-Sharia, the most radical Islamist group to emerge in the North African country since the 2011 uprising ousted its autocratic leader and triggered revolts across the region.
Two police officers died in clashes with a group of gunmen on Thursday and security forces killed a total of 10 militants in raids after that near the northeastern city of northeastern city of Goubellat.
"Our forces have killed 10 members of the armed group Ansar al-Sharia after three days of confrontations in the mountains," Larayedh told Reuters.
He said three others were arrested and arms and explosive material was also seized.
Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia is just one of the hardline Islamist groups based in North Africa.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also operates in the region, along with MUJWA, scattered by the French offensive in Mali, and Algerian Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who masterminded the attack on Algeria's Amenas gas plant in January when nearly 40 foreign contractors were killed.
Neighbouring Libya, where the fragile central government and nascent armed forces struggle to impose their authority, has become a haven for Islamist fighters, especially in the remote south.
Two months ago, Larayedh's government declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organisation, accusing it of killing two secular opposition politicians who deaths provoked the biggest protests in Tunisia since the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Hardline Islamists from Ansar al-Sharia were blamed for ransacking the U.S. embassy in Tunis a year ago, during worldwide Muslim protests over an Internet video that insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
Critics accuse ruling moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, of failing to crackdown on militants. After months of deadlock, Ennahda has agreed it will step down after three weeks of talks to form a caretaker government. Those talks start on Wednesday.
Tunisia has seen growing tensions over the political role of Islam between secularists and Islamists whose influence has been increasing in one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world since the 2011 uprising.
Salafi Islamists have stopped concerts and closed down alcohol shops in several cities, saying they violated Islamic principles. Those incidents worried secular Tunisians who fear Islamists will try to impose strict sharia law that will impinge on liberal education and woman's rights.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey and Tarek Amara; Editing by Alison Williams)