TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Gunmen ambushed a Tunisian army patrol Monday in a mountainous border region known as an Islamic militant stronghold, killing at least eight soldiers, the presidential spokesman said.
Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia's highest mountain at 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), is located near the Algerian border and the city of Kasserine, and was the site of an intensive military hunt for an al-Qaida-linked militant group during the spring.
"An entire patrol carrying out a search operation in this mountainous region was decimated," said presidential spokesman Adnan Mancer, adding that his information came from the defense ministry.
Mohammed Sghayer Hamzaoui of the Kasserine hospital emergency unit told The Associated Press that nine soldiers were killed and four were wounded. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.
Radio Mosaique FM added that three of the dead had their throats cut and that the attackers made off with the soldiers' weapons.
Mancer said reinforcements have been sent to the region, which the army had announced was cleared of militants on June 24 after a two-month operation that cost three lives, wounded 27 people and set off almost a dozen road side bombs.
In 2011, Tunisians kicked off the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in the region by overthrowing long-reigning dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But since then, politics have been fractious here, with a moderate Islamist party winning elections but alienating many other groups along the way.
The attack comes just five days after a left-wing politician was shot dead in front of his house by an alleged Islamic militant.
Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki declared three days of mourning and, in a speech on the radio, called for national unity in the face of the terrorist attacks that he said were aimed at the entire country.
"It's our revolution that is being targeted, our way of life and our Islam that is the aim of these acts," he said. The ambush comes as Tunisia's political leaders are at each other's throats with the opposition demanding the dissolution of the government over the recent political assassination, which authorities have ascribed to Islamic militants as well.
"Are we going to let (the terrorists) realize the other half of their objectives and destroy the state?" he asked. "Today is the moment to come together for Tunisia, so that the blood of the martyrs is not shed in vain and to open a new page."
A national park, Jebel Chaambi is the trailing edge of the Atlas mountain range that stretches across North Africa and is filled with dense forests, caves and deep valleys.
After soldiers in a patrol were injured in April, the military searched the area and discovered evidence suggesting an al-Qaida-linked movement supported by the local population had set up training camps in the area.
The Interior Ministry said the local militant group has named itself the Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade, after the 7th century Arab warrior that conquered Tunisia. The group is said to consist of Tunisian recruits trained by veteran Algerian jihadists with links to al-Qaida and to be supported by Ansar al-Shariah, a local movement of ultraconservative Muslims, known as Salafis.
The Tunisian military has also said that the extremists bought supplies from local farmers in this impoverished region, which has long harbored anti-government sentiment.
State television interrupted its regular programming Monday to show images of the dead and wounded against a background of Quranic recitation.