BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia's borders with Algeria in recent days has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis.
With neighboring Algeria and Libya full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth of armed groups while making its own tentative transition to democracy.
The news out of Tunisia in the past week has been depressingly familiar for the Middle East: roadside bombs badly wounding soldiers and police as they comb a cave-filled mountainous region for al-Qaida linked militants. What's unusual is that the setting is this largely secularized middle class nation of 10 million.
For now the numbers are small compared to those found in Algeria, Libya or northern Mali. But recent fighting in the Sahel -- the arid region just south of the Sahara Desert -- has sent jihadi fighters looking for new havens, raising fears that Tunisia is in their sights.
"We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state," Mohammed Ali Aroui, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said Tuesday, without giving further details. He estimated that there were some 20 militants hiding in the rugged 70 square kilometers (27 square miles) of Jebel Chaambi, near the southern city of Kasserine. He said that another dozen were at large 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north, around the town of al-Kef.
Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou told worried lawmakers on Wednesday that "certain terrorists" in the Jebel Chaambi region as well as al-Kef had come up from northern Mali.
The mountain hunt is the culmination of a string of relatively minor incidents with armed groups since Tunisians overthrew the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, kicking off the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring around the region.
Ben Ali's repressive regime was known for its harsh oppression of all forms of Islamists. After his fall, a once-banned moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, went on to dominate parliamentary elections. At the same time, prisons were flung open, letting out many militants with connections to violent groups that appear to have restarted their activities. Ennahda is often accused of tolerating these more radicalized militants or not taking them seriously enough.
The retiring head of the United States' African Command, Gen. Carter Ham, visited Tunisia at the end of March and warned that "it is very clear to me that al-Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia."
Ben Ali's secular-minded dictatorship long bred extremist sentiments but most radicals then sought jihad outside the country's borders, first in Iraq and later in Syria and Mali. Recently, it appears that some Tunisian radicals have decided to do their fighting inside the country -- with a failing economy feeding militant views.
Most incidents over the past two years have involved armed groups using Tunisia's southern desert to pass between Algeria and Libya. But in December the Interior Ministry announced the dissolution of a seven-man cell linked to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the same group that had formed an Islamic emirate in northern Mali in alliance with Tuareg tribesmen.
There were also discoveries of what was described as training camps in the border region with Algeria.
"The terrorists were looking to establish a logistical base to conduct their operations," announced Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr on Tuesday, adding that in the past week, four bombs made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had wounded 16 soldiers and police, including two who lost legs and two who lost eyes. He also said several arms caches had been uncovered.
The campaign around Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia's highest mountain at 1,500 meters (4,900 feet), has transfixed Algeria, which fears that Tunisian violence may start roiling its own shaky security situation.
Since the fall of Ben Ali, there has been a rise not just in moderate Islamist groups but also hardline ultraorthodox Muslims known as salafis, who have railed against what they call the secular elements of a country long known for its progressive attitudes, especially concerning women's rights.
Critics of the government say these salafi groups, including those advocating violence, have been allowed to run rampant. On Sept. 14, several salafi groups converged on the U.S. Embassy, burning cars and destroying a nearby American school. Seifallah Ben Hassine of the Ansar al-Sharia group, a former denizen of Ben Ali's jails, has gone into hiding after being linked to the embassy attack.