TUNIS - Prime Minister Habib Essid praised Tunisia's military and security forces on Tuesday for their response to the deadly assault by extremist attackers near the Libyan border.
The death toll from Monday's clashes in the city of Ben Guerdane rose to 55, including 36 attackers, Essid said Tuesday. Seven civilians and 12 members of Tunisia's security forces also died, and 17 others were injured.
“The attack that happened yesterday showed that our military and security forces were ready,” he told a press conference. “We won a battle, but we haven't yet won the war on terror, and that war continues.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but websites affiliated with the Islamic State group said IS militants were handed a tough blow by Tunisian security forces. One website published more than 30 pictures showing militants' bodies as well as weapons and munitions seized.
Essid said that about 50 gunmen - most of them Tunisians - took part in the attack. Only four out of the 36 attackers killed have been formally identified. Essid did not give more details about the attackers' background but said some came from Libya.
According to local journalist Raoudha Bouttar, there was sporadic gunfire on Tuesday in the outskirts of Ben Guerdane as Tunisian forces searched for attackers still at large.
Tunisian forces have repeatedly clashed with extremists on the borders of Libya and Algeria in recent years, but Monday's fighting was unusually bloody. Tunisia has been as a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in democracy and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.
An uprising in neighboring Libya led to the ouster and killing of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but since then the country has fallen into chaos, allowing the IS group to take control of several cities. The divided country is ruled by two parliaments: an internationally recognized body based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a rival government, backed by Islamist-allied militias, that controls the capital, Tripoli.
Essid said the gunmen targeted a police station and military facilities in Ben Guerdane after launching their attack from a nearby mosque. He said attackers were arrested and gave information that led to the discovery of a weapons cache.
The prime minister also confirmed that the chief of the anti-terrorism brigade in Ben Guerdane was among those killed. He was killed in his house when he was preparing to go to work, at the beginning of the attack.
According to Essid, security and military forces in the city were not caught off guard.
“We were not passive spectators because we had received info, hence our reaction and the positive results we had,” he said.
Without elaborating, Essid insisted cooperation with “brother and friend countries,” including the United States will help Tunisia in its fight against extremism but ruled out the possibility of a foreign military intervention.
Tunisia is especially worried about the IS presence in Libya after dozens of tourists were killed in attacks in Tunisia last year. IS extremists claimed responsibility for those attacks, and Tunisian authorities said the attackers had been trained in Libya.
Last week, Tunisian security forces killed five heavily armed men in an hours-long firefight after they crossed into the country from Libya with a larger group. Tunisian security forces had been placed on alert based on “precise information” of possible border infiltrations following a February 19 U.S. raid on an IS camp near the Libyan town of Sabratha, not far from the Tunisian border.
A jihadist wrote on an IS-affiliated website that the gunmen in Ben Guerdane were part of a group that withdrew from Libya because “they were under big pressure, live in a difficult situation and being sought after by everyone especially after last month's U.S. airstrike.”