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Sun 22 Mar 2015 11:52 AM

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Tunisia arrests more than 20 in crackdown since museum attack

President says country has thousands of young jihadists

Tunisia arrests more than 20 in crackdown since museum attack
(Getty Images)

Tunisian
authorities have arrested more than 20 suspected militants in a nationwide
security crackdown since gunmen killed 23 people, mostly foreign tourists, in
Wednesday's attack in the capital, the government said.

Hundreds of
people gathered for a mass in the cathedral in Tunis on Saturday, lighting
candles to remember the victims, who included three Tunisians, in a ceremony
attended by government ministers.

Outside, there
was a heavy police presence along the central Habib Bourguiba boulevard. But
Tunis was calm, with a music festival going ahead in the city centre.

Wednesday's
assault, the deadliest involving foreigners in Tunisia since a 2002 suicide
bombing on the island of Djerba, came at a fragile moment for a country just
emerging to full democracy after a popular uprising four years ago.

The government
said the two gunmen had trained in jihadi camps in Libya before the attack at
the Bardo museum inside the heavily secured Tunisian parliament compound.
Japanese, French, Polish, Italian and Colombian visitors were among the
victims.

Authorities
have arrested more than 20 suspected militants, including 10 believed to be
directly involved in the Bardo attack, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali
Aroui said.

"There is
a large-scale campaign against the extremists," he said. The ministry
released a photograph of another suspect and asked Tunisians to help with
information.

The government
plans to deploy the army to major cities to improve security following the
shootings.

ISIL militants
have claimed responsibility for the attack, but social media accounts tied to
an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Tunisia have also published purported details
of the operation.

Whoever was
responsible, the Bardo attack illustrates how Islamist militants are turning
their attention to North Africa. A particular focus is neighbouring Libya,
where two rival governments are battling for control, allowing ISIL to gain a
foothold.

The United
States is increasingly worried about the growing presence of ISIL militants in
Libya.

In an interview
with Paris Match magazine, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said there were
as many as 10,000 young Tunisian jihadists in all.

"Among the
often desperate young unemployed, the call to jihadism has worked," he
said.

"Four
thousand Tunisians have joined jihad, in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, and some
500 have already come back here, where they pose a threat. That is not to mention
the five or six thousand others we have succeeded in preventing from
leaving."

U.S. officials
said that because of its strategic position, Libya has become a springboard for
would-be fighters from across North Africa wanting to link up with ISIL.

The militant
group controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and claimed responsibility for
suicide bombings at two mosques that killed at least 137 people in the capital
of Yemen on Friday.

Four years
after a popular revolt toppled autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has
completed its transition to democracy with free elections, a new constitution
and compromise politics between secular and Islamist parties.

But the attack
threatens to hit the economy of a country that is heavily reliant on drawing
foreign visitors to its beach resorts and desert treks. Authorities have
tightened security at hotels and tourist spots.

"This
attack will have an impact, no doubt. But so far we have only had a small
number of cancellations," Tourism Minister Salma Loumi told Reuters.
"On the contrary, we are seeing support from Western countries and travel
agencies."

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