KAIROUAN, Tunisia (AP) — Massive numbers of Tunisian police and army surrounded Tunisia's religious center of Kairouan to prevent a conference by a radical Islamist movement that has been implicated in attacks around the country.
Security check points on the roads and patrols inside the city by some 11,000 police and soldiers prevented the ultraconservative Muslim group Ansar al-Shariah from holding its annual conference after authorities declared it a threat "to security and public order."
Police did briefly scuffle with stone throwing young men in downtown and fired tear gas to disperse them.
The leader of Ansar al-Shariah, Seifallah Ben Hassine is wanted for his involvement in a mob attack on the U.S. embassy in September and his followers have been accused of attacking art galleries, police stations and cinemas.
The robust response to the conference by security forces is unprecedented since the 2011 overthrow of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who presided over a strong police state.
The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, has long been accused by the opposition of being lax with attacks by ultraconservative Muslims, called salafis, on what they deem to be impious in the country.
Ansar al-Shariah's combative rhetoric, however, appears to have united the country against it. In a national dialogue conference involving unions, civil society and political parties Thursday, Ansar al-Shariah was widely condemned.
The spokesman of Ansar al-Shariah, Seifeddine Rais, was detained by authorities Sunday morning and an attempt by members to hold a rally in a lower income Tunisian suburb was also dispersed by tear gas.
Rais on Thursday said that the authorities would bear responsibility for any blood spilled if they tried to ban the conference.
Security has been high around Kairouan since Saturday, with police checking IDs and searching the cars of anyone entering the city.
Residents appeared to welcome the security and handed out roses to patrolling police, offering their encouragement.
Since the overthrow of Ben Ali in an uprising that heralded the region-wide Arab Spring, Tunisia's salafis have become increasingly aggressive about preaching their conservative version of Islam.
Last year's Ansar al-Shariah conference in Kairouan drew some 4,000 attendees and featured sword waving horse riders and martial arts displays, along with a great deal of fiery rhetoric.