TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian forces killed two gunmen and captured a third after clashes on Wednesday night with what appeared to be a group of Islamists smuggling weapons in the east of the country, several security and government sources said.
Five Tunisian security forces were also wounded in the fighting near the industrial port city of Sfax, 237 kms (147 miles) southeast of Tunis, and police and military had cordoned off the area, security sources said.
The clashes were the first to take place in Tunisia since elections in October ushered in a government dominated by moderate Islamist group Ennahda and two secular partners.
Tunisia’s interior ministry forces were shaken by the revolt that ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and brought down his police state a year ago and secularist groups have accused Ennahda of being too soft on armed militants and religious extremists.
Mohammed al-Tunsi, a National Guard official, had said the three gunmen appeared to be Salafis, ultra-conservative Islamists, but Interior Minister Ali Larayed, a senior member of Ennahda, told reporters on Wednesday night it was too early to identify them.
He described the incident as “dangerous” and promised more details on Thursday.
Larayed said a large stash of assault rifles and ammunition had been discovered in the vehicle the three men were travelling in. The gunmen abandoned their car and hid in the surrounding countryside where they exchanged fire with police and military for several hours while a helicopter buzzed overhead.
A spokesman for President Moncef al-Marzouki told state television he believed the gunmen were part of a 20-strong gang that smuggled weapons through Tunisia.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests that swept the region in 2011, has made a relatively smooth transition to an elected constituent assembly that will draft a new constitution for the country.
However, protests and strikes have continued in the centre of the country, where unemployment remains high, and security forces are under pressure to do more to rein in Salafis who have asserted themselves since the uprising and to secure the borders with Algeria and Libya.