Tunisian security forces on Thursday killed two members of an armed group and arrested a third after a clash the day before left a policeman and three soldiers wounded, one of them critically, the state news agency reported.
The group was caught after a wide-ranging manhunt involving helicopters in the southern Bir Ali Ben Khalifa region. Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh described the incident Wednesday as serious and would not rule out that the men might belong to the North African branch of al-Qaida.
President Moncef Marzouki cancelled a state visit to the interior of the country Thursday to confer with security and military leaders over the incident.
The men, described as bearded by the state news agency, were stopped in their car at a checkpoint Wednesday and then opened fire with assault rifles, before fleeing into a nearby olive orchard, according to Radio Mosaique FM. Police discovered weapons and lists of names of people from all over the country in the car, it said.
The man arrested Thursday near the city of Sfax was a 21-year-old student and was part of an outfit called the "Slimane Group," according to preliminary investigations cited by the radio report.
The state news agency only described the men as involved in arms smuggling.
Laarayedh confirmed that there has been an increase in the traffic of arms in Tunisia, mainly coming from neighboring Libya where a civil war raged for much of 2011.
He said some 600 weapons were seized by security forces last year.
The local branch of al-Qaida has a strong presence in the deserts to the south 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 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.