Three suspected jihadists killed in a gun battle with Tunisian forces were wanted Algerian leaders of al-Qaeda, Tunisia’s interior ministry said on Tuesday, a day after the shootout.
The Tunisian national guard said one its officers was also killed when fighting broke out Monday during a joint search operation with the army in the mountainous Kasserine region near the Algerian border.
The interior ministry said one of the three alleged jihadists, identified as El Behi Akrouf and nicknamed Abu Salma, could be a top leader of Okba ibn Nafaa – the Tunisian branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).
It named the other two men as Tahar Jijli and El Mahi.
The three are “among the most dangerous leaders in their group”, national guard spokesman Housemeddine Jebabli said.
They are alleged to have participated in a July 2018 attack that killed six policemen near Jendouba in northwestern Tunisia, according to the interior ministry.
That jihadist operation, the bloodiest since a series of attacks in 2015 and early 2016, was claimed by Aqim.
Jijli was the group’s head in the northwestern region of Kef while El Mahi ran its operations in Jendouba, the national guard said, adding that both coordinated directly with Aqim.
The apparent gun battle took place on the opening day of campaigning for Tunisia’s presidential election, due to take place on September 15.
Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has been hit by multiple jihadist attacks that have killed dozens of members of the security forces and foreign tourists.
The country has been under a state of emergency since November 2015, when an IS-claimed suicide bombing in the capital Tunis killed 12 presidential guards.
The Kasserine region remains a hideout for jihadist groups, including AQIM and the Islamic State group-affiliate Jund al-Khalifa.