October 24, 2014 / 11:39 AM / in 6 years

Tunisian forces kill six after standoff with militants outside Tunis

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian security forces on Friday killed six people, including five women, after a standoff with an Islamist militant group on the outskirts of Tunis two days before a parliamentary election, authorities said.

Tunisian soldiers patrol a residence in Oued Ellil, west of Tunis October 23, 2014. REUTERS/Anis Mili

The raid on the house in Oued Ellil, west of Tunis, was the latest operation in Tunisia’s crackdown on Islamist militants authorities say threaten the country’s transition to democracy following the 2011 fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

A number of militants had been holed up in a house since Thursday after clashes in which a police officer was killed when troops surrounded the building, according to security officials.

Heavy gunfire erupted among the low-rise buildings when troops stormed the building, killing one man and five women on Friday. Officials said two children were also rescued from the house.

“Our special forces have killed six people from this terrorist group that included five women, who also exchanged fire with our forces,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said by telephone.

Details about the raid and what the authorities had suspected the group of doing were still unclear, though officials said the militants were linked to others arrested earlier in the week.

Another man and one other woman were arrested at the house during the raid.

Aroui said information showed the women had been planning to travel through neighboring Libya and then to Syria, where Islamist militants including Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates are fighting.

Tunisia has long been a source of jihadis in foreign conflicts, from the Afghan wars against the Soviets through to the Iraq war after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Tunisia has struggled to subdue hardline Islamists and jihadis opposed to the transition to democracy following the revolt against Ben Ali, and the military has cracked down hard on militants in the run up to Sunday’s election.

Security and economic advances are major concerns for Tunisians voters, who hope the vote will consolidate democracy in the country after a year of political disputes that almost scuttled the transition process.

Since the 2011 revolt, Tunisia has approved a new constitution and reached a compromise among rival groups, unlike Libya and Egypt where Arab Spring uprisings brought about changes of government but also deeper, often violent polarization.

But Tunisia’s “Jasmine revolution” also opened the way for hardline Islamist and ultraconservative groups to ascend after years of jail, exile and repression under Ben Ali.

Among militant groups operating in Tunisia is Ansar al Sharia, which the United States considers a terrorist organization and blames for orchestrating the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tunis in 2012.

Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said recently Tunisia has arrested some 1,500 suspected jihadists this year, among them hundreds who fought in Syria’s civil war and could pose a danger at home since their return.

Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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