Tunisian army clashes with militants in desert

AP News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 4:08 PM
Tunisian army clashes with militants in desert

The Tunisian army destroyed seven four-wheel drive vehicles in a remote desert battle on Wednesday near the border with Algeria, the Defense Ministry said.

The group of nine vehicles was spotted by a routine Tunisian army air patrol. The group then opened fire on the plane, prompting an armed response, said the ministry.

The battle took place in the desert region of Irg, 300 miles (470 kilometers) southwest of Tunis.

The two remaining vehicles have been stopped and their occupants will be taken into custody, said Heykel Bouzouita, the spokesman for the ministry.

It is not yet known if the vehicles belonged to al-Qaida militants or armed smugglers, both of whom roam the trackless desert wastes that span borders of several North African countries.

The local branch of al-Qaida has a strong presence in the desert and has attacked targets in Algeria and Tunisia as well as taken hostages in Niger and Mali.

Tunisia has boosted its presence along the desert borders recently due to increased activity by al-Qaida.

In May, a Tunisian army colonel was killed in a border clash believed to be with elements of the group.

The Algerian state news agency, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that a leading member of AQIM was killed in an ambush east of the capital.