Killing of drone expert with Hamas connections jolts Tunisia

Sunday 25/12/2016
Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub speaks during a press conference on December 19th,
in Tunis, following the assassination of Mohamed Zouari. (AFP)

Tunis - The killing of a Tunisian drone specialist with ties to the militant Palestinian movement Hamas jolted the small North African country at a time when it seemed headed towards increased calm and stability.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry said eight Tunisian citizens have been arrested in connection with the December 15th killing of Mo­hamed Zouari, who was shot multi­ple times in his car near his house in the coastal town of Sfax.
The ministry said Zouari’s ties to Hamas were previously unknown and that its investigation indicat­ed suspected foreigners had been tracking him since June when they set up a media company as a cover to shadow his whereabouts.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Qas­sam Brigades, said in an online statement that Zouari had been a member of the group for ten years and had been supervising its drone programme.
“Qassam Brigades mourns the martyr of Palestine, martyr of the Arab and Muslim nation, the Qas­sam leader, engineer and pilot Mo­hamed Zouari, who was assassinat­ed by treacherous Zionist hands,” a statement posted on the group’s website said.
Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub said during a news con­ference in Tunis that Zouari had re­turned to Tunisia after the 2011 up­rising that overthrew anti-Islamist president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to set up an avionics association to manufacture unmanned aerial ve­hicles.
“Tunisian security services had no information about his links to Hamas or other groups while he was abroad and when he returned to Tu­nisia,” Majdoub said.
Authorities in Tunis, which have not had to deal with a major ter­rorist incident this year after two attacks that left 60 people dead in 2015, have not tied Israel to Zouari’s killing, only saying that “foreign el­ements” were involved.
Zouari had left Tunisia early in the 1990s to escape arrest when he was a leading student figure in the then-illegal Islamist Ennahda party, whose leaders had been accused of plotting to overthrow the govern­ment.
Rafik Chelly, Tunisia’s former sec­retary of State for Security Affairs, described Zouari’s killing as a “hurt­ing blow”.
“It jolted the country to the core,” he said. “There are a lot of unclear activities by foreigners and we do not know the full extent of all such activities on our land.”
After leaving Tunisia, Zouari lived in Libya and Sudan before settling in Syria where he studied engineer­ing at an aviation academy.
After his return to Tunisia, he travelled to Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Turkey where he kept a busi­ness connection with a technology company, Majdoub said.
Ennahda, which is in a coalition government with secularist Nidaa Tounes, has kept a low profile over the killing as its leaders want to con­vince their opponents at home and abroad they gave up “Islamist ideol­ogy” for “Muslim democracy”.
However, around 200 Ennahda sympathisers joined 300 nationalist and leftist activists to march against the “Zionist entity” on December 20th to urge the government to act against Israel. Activists called on parliament to pass a bill against any normalisation of ties with Israel.
Hamas is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and much of Europe. Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 after routing troops loyal to Palestin­ian President Mahmoud Abbas in bloody street battles. Palestinians have since been divided between Gaza under Hamas and Abbas gov­erning parts of the West Bank.