Traffic resumes as Tunisia reopens border crossings with Libya

Friday 18/03/2016
Cross-border trade forms mainstay of economy of southern provinces

TUNIS - Tunisia reopened its border crossings with Libya on Tuesday after a two-week closure in response to a deadly jihadist attack on a town near the frontier, the interior ministry said.

The move came as Tunisia hosted talks with other countries neighbouring Libya on the threat posed by the growing Islamic State (ISIS) group presence in the lawless North African nation.

Both the Ras Jedir crossing on the Mediterranean coast and the Dehiba crossing in the mountainous desert interior reopened at 0600 GMT, ministry spokesman Yasser Mesbah said.

An official of the main organisation that looks after the interests of Tunisians working abroad said traffic at Ras Jedir was still light in mid-morning and consisted mainly of goods lorries.

Customs officers were carrying out "painstaking searches" of every vehicle, Ali Ouni said from the crossing.

Tunisia closed the two crossings on March 7 when dozens of heavily armed jihadists who had slipped across the border from Libya launched coordinated attacks on police and army posts in the town of Ben Guerdane, north of Ras Jedir.

Seven civilians and 13 security personnel were killed in the immediate assault and there have been further casualties over the past two weeks as the police and army hunted down jihadists still at large.

Security forces recovered the body of one wanted militant on Monday morning after a firefight through the night that wounded 10 security personnel and a civilian.

It is the second time that Tunisia has closed its border with Libya in recent months.

It shut the crossings for 15 days following a November 24 attack in the heart of Tunis that killed 12 presidential guards.

Thousands of Tunisians are believed to have travelled abroad to join jihadist groups, many of them to Libya, and closing the border is an obvious security response.

But cross-border trade, both legal and illegal, forms a mainstay of the economy of Tunisia's southern provinces, which are among the poorest in the country.

Tunisia has failed to curb a rise in extremism since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Last year, ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks on the Bardo museum in Tunis and a popular resort hotel that killed 59 tourists in total, as well as the suicide bombing that killed the presidential guards.

Last month, Washington carried out an air strike on an ISIS training camp in Libya that killed dozens of jihadists, likely including the suspected Tunisian mastermind of two of the attacks.

The European Union has been increasingly concerned about the ISIS presence just across the Mediterranean in Libya.

EU officials were due to join UN and African Union representatives at Tuesday's talks in Tunis among Libya's neighbours.

Britain has also sent troops to train Tunisian forces guarding the Libyan border, which has been fortified along half of its length.

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