Tunisian security forces battled extremist gunmen raiding a construction site in search of food and a suspect barricaded in a house on Wednesday, leaving a soldier and three gunmen dead in the area’s third day of fighting, the government said.
A total of 46 extremists have been reported killed since Monday in an operation that officials say can continue for days as security forces track assailants to safe houses around Ben Guerdane.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in a region near lawless Libya where the Islamic State group has a growing presence.
A dozen members of the security forces and seven civilians have been killed since dawn Monday when fighting began.
Information from seven arrested attackers led security forces to arms depots, authorities said.
Prime Minister Habib Essid said on Tuesday that some 50 people took part in the attack, most of them Tunisians. Not all bodies have yet been identified.
“We know that the monitoring, verifying, and follow-up operations require time, maybe days,” said Khaled Chouket, the Tunisian government spokesman.
Websites affiliated with IS said militants were handed a tough blow by Tunisian security forces.
Tunisia has been a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in the democratic process and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.
The Tunisian prime minister said on Tuesday that the attackers wanted to take control of the military barracks in Ben Guerdane, police posts and the National Guard post. He said without elaborating their goal was to set up an “emirate of Daesh,” — another name for the Islamic State group.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in Cairo on Wednesday, called for a Libyan political deal and a UN-backed unity government as a way to combat Islamic State group.
“The Islamic State is expanding in North Africa, because of the Libyan divisions,” Ayrault said.