Tunisia says no to NATO presence at planned operations centre

Disagreements arose after NATO insisted on the centre being established in Gabes, and on maintaining a presence there.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A Tunisian soldier stands guard as new ships given by the US military to the Tunisian naval forces arrive at the Bizerte naval base on the northern coast of Tunisia, last year. (AFP)
Rejection. A Tunisian soldier stands guard as new ships given by the US military to the Tunisian naval forces arrive at the Bizerte naval base. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia rejected a NATO proposal to station personnel at a planned military operations centre in exchange for a $3.7 million grant, the Tunisian Defence Ministry said.

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi said the ministry rejected a proposal by NATO to give Tunisia $3.7 million to receive “permanent experts” to provide technical advice to the Tunisian military.

The dispute over the planned centre, designed to enhance coordination between air, land and sea forces as Tunisia steps up defence against jihadist threats, comes as NATO members look to expand their military footprint in the Maghreb.

Disagreements over the centre arose after NATO insisted on it being established in Gabes, in south-eastern Tunisia, as well as maintaining a presence there, Zbidi said at a parliamentary hearing.

Zbidi said the European side was studying the issue of a grant after the Defence Ministry refused the presence of elements outside the military institution and the “persistence” in choosing the location of the project, the Tunisian press agency report.

Tunisia has benefited from collaboration with NATO, which has provided critical training and equipment for the country’s special forces unit.

Discussions about Tunisia’s planned operations centre, described as an “intelligence hub,” go back several years, including at a NATO summit in 2016.

The United States has also been a close partner of Tunisia’s fight against terrorism. In 2015, the United States granted Tunisia the status of “major non-NATO ally” as the two countries strengthened military cooperation. Over the past seven years, the United States provided Tunisia with more than $400 million in security assistance, in addition to military equipment and training.

The Washington Post, citing US officials, reported in 2016 that US personnel had been using a Tunisian air base to conduct surveillance missions in Libya. The reports were denied by Tunisian officials, who said drones had only been used to train Tunisian military personnel within the country’s borders.

While Tunisia has not experienced a terror attack since early 2016, when military and security forces repelled an attack in the border town of Ben Guerdane, officials warn that the jihadist threat still looms.

Tunisian soldiers stopped two gunmen attempting to smuggle ammunition into the country at Borj al-Khadra, near the Libyan border, on February 18. Soldiers forced the gunmen to turn back to Libya and confiscated a four-wheel-drive vehicle loaded with ammunition for Kalashnikovs.

NATO’s proposal to maintain a military presence in Tunisia reflects a growing European concern over illegal migration and jihadism. Maghreb security sources said the United States has also sought to increase its footprint in the region, asking Algeria for permission to maintain a military presence at the Tamanrasset base in the south for counterterrorism activities.

Algerian leaders rebuffed US efforts to use the base in 2012 when Libya plunged into conflict following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The United States instead built a drone base in Agadez in northern Niger.

In January, the Italian parliament approved an increased military presence in Libya and the deployment of up to 470 troops in Niger to combat migration and human trafficking.

France, which maintains its largest overseas military mission in Mali, conducted its first air strike near the Algerian border on February 15, killing ten suspected jihadists. The French air raid hit a jihadist hideout near Tinzaouaten in northern Mali, about 10km from the Algerian border.