Tunis sends message of support to Sarraj
Tunis - Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid, among the first top foreign officials to visit Libya since the neighbouring country plunged into chaos five years ago, met his Libyan counterpart, Faiez al-Sarraj, on May 6th.
The whirlwind visit underlined Tunisia’s eagerness to see the stabilisation of Libya help Tunis fight jihadists and solve its social and economic woes.
Essid, accompanied by Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, was preceded by Algerian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel and several European officials who travelled to Tripoli over recent weeks to display support for Sarraj’s unity government as the legitimate power in Libya in the eyes of the international community.
As the diplomats gathered, forces in western Libya prepared to advance on Sirte, seized by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015. The fighters, based in Misrata, would like international logistical support to help retake the city, they have said. There is fear the situation could develop into civil war.
That might have prompted neighbouring and European countries to plan a forthcoming meeting of top diplomats in Vienna to ponder ways to back the Sarraj government
Essid and Sarraj have agreed to broaden security coordination to fight terrorism and smuggling and to better control the border, Essid’s office said.
Sarraj also met with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis on May 11th and they pledged to fight terrorism together and strengthen strategic ties.
Tunisia sees Libya as a domestic issue as thousands of Tunisian jihadists joined ISIS and other jihadist groups in Libya — constituting a continuing threat to the country.
On May 11th, four members of the government security forces and three suspected jihadists were killed during security operations on the outskirts of Tunis and in the southern border region of Tataouine, the Interior Ministry said.
The operations showed that Tunisia’s security forces were increasingly adopting a “pre-emptive” strategy against jihadists after being forced to ward off attacks because they lacked intelligence following the dismantlement of key intelligence services after the ouster of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
Police disrupted a jihadist cell in Mnihla near Tunis, on May 11th. Cell members were allegedly planning attacks in the capital. Authorities obtained information from detained jihadists about another cell in Tataouine, where national guards moved in swiftly to dismantle it.
The operations came in a stark contrast to the March 6th jihadist attack on Ben Guerdane in which about 100 fighters stormed the garrison town, attacking army and police posts.
Three days later, at least 36 militants were dead, along with 12 soldiers and seven civilians, in an assault authorities described as an attempt by the ISIS to carve out an emirate in Tunisia.
Sources close to the Tunisian intelligence services say the gunmen in Tataouine were ISIS fighters who had survived the Ben Guerdane battle.
Many of the Ben Guerdane’s population which had overwhelmingly rallied behind government forces battling the jihadists in March, clashed on May 10th-11th with police and national guards to protest the closure of Ras Jedir border outpost. The clashes underlined the vulnerability of Tunisia’s social and security situation.
The border had been closed by Libyan militiamen backing Sarraj in Tripoli but not taking orders directly from his government.
Protest leaders in Ben Guerdane, backed by the country’s main trade union, vowed to occupy the outpost if the government failed to open it and allow free flow of trade.
Tolerated smuggling of goods provides the main source of revenues for much of the population in the region.