New security incident on the border with Libya raises alarm in Tunisia

The Tunisian army has opened fire on four "suspicious" vehicles from its neighbouring country
Tunisian special military rapid intervention unit in the trench dug along the border with Libya near the Ras Jedir pass

AFP/FETHI BELAID  -   Tunisian special military rapid intervention unit in the trench dug along the border with Libya near the Ras Jedir pass

The Libyan civil war, which has been raging since 2011, is making its effects felt in neighbouring countries, particularly in Tunisia, which has been on guard against an upsurge in fighting in western Libya since last April, when Libyan President Kais Saied decreed an increase in the alert level across the 450-kilometre zone separating the two nations.

According to the Tunisian Ministry of Defence on Wednesday, "Army troops on the border with Libya fired on Tuesday night at vehicles that crossed into Tunisia", with no reported deaths. "The military formations operating in the area of Manzla, in the district of Remada (Tatouine governorate) detected last night, around 22:00 hours, suspicious movements of four vehicles coming from Libyan territory, which entered the border buffer zone at the level of the sand barrier," the Ministry explained in a statement collected by The Arab Weekly. The Tunisian troops then "fired warning shots to force the vehicles to stop but ignored the warnings. In a second stage, the tyres were shot at, and the vehicles decided to flee," the note said.

The military court of the Sfax governorate has announced the opening of an investigation to shed light on the incident, while the ministry has reaffirmed that all units of the Tunisian national army will remain "ready with all available legal means to combat all attempts to damage the security of the national territory and to put an end to all illegal acts, such as smuggling, terrorist activities and organized crime. 

Puesto de aduanas de Túnez en el cruce fronterizo de Ras Jedir con Libia
AFP/FATHI NASRI - Tunisian customs post at Ras Jedir border crossing with Libya

The escalation of the conflict in Libya, where the Government of National Unity (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj and supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy, is struggling; and the National Liberation Army (LNA), commanded by Marshal Khalifa Haftar and defended by Egypt, France and the Arab world, especially in the western part of the territory, poses a security threat to Tunisia, in that the destabilisation of the area could increase illegal activities and the presence of extremist and insurgent groups that make the chaos generated by a war their best asset.

The Tunisian nation has identified several risks in this regard, related to illegal trafficking, whether in drugs, arms or people. In this last block, it is worth noting, for example, that some Syrian mercenaries have fled from Libya, where they were fighting after being paid by Turkey in the ranks of the GNA, to Tunisia. The porosity of the border is also taken advantage of by jihadists who are similarly integrated into the ranks of the Sarraj Army, and who come from some terrorist groups such as the former Al-Nusra Front or Al-Qaeda. "Concerns in Tunisia were fuelled by Turkey's sending of mercenaries and Islamic militants from Syria," they say in The Arab Weekly. It is worth mentioning that the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) estimates that more than 15,300 fighters have been deployed by Ankara to Libya to support the struggle of the ANG. Some 400 have already escaped to Europe and it is feared that a similar number, or even more because of geographical proximity, have done the same in the direction of Tunisia.

The country led by Kais Saied is still on the alert for ongoing terrorist outbreaks, with some of the cells involved coming from Libya or obtaining the materials to attack there. This is the case, for example, of an attack that took place at the beginning of March, when two jihadists blew themselves up in front of the United States Embassy in the capital. The explosive they had used was obtained at the Libyan border. The most notorious cases date back to 2015, when two attacks on the Bardo Museum and a resort on Susa beach killed nearly a hundred people. That is why the following year, in 2016, Tunisia ordered the construction of a 200-kilometre border barrier, consisting of trenches full of water, sandbanks and an electronic fence, "to prevent cross-border infiltration by jihadists," as The Arab Weekly recalls.