Tunisia: Govt Plans Border Buffer Zone
Tunis — Tunisia plans to set up military buffer zones along the Algerian and Libyan borders to combat terrorism, Defence Minister Rachid Sabbagh said Thursday (August 29th).
“Setting up these zones is necessary because of the current situation and to fight against the threats that hang over Tunisia,” including “terrorism and arms trafficking”, AFP quoted Sabbagh as saying.
He did not give specific details of where the zones would be set up, but stressed that travellers to those areas would need special permits from authorities. Sabbagh also said the measures would last a year, without elaborating.
The Tunisian army launched an offensive on August 1st against militants with ties to al-Qaeda in the remote Jebel Chaambi area near the Algerian border. The operation was launched after eight soldiers were found with their throats slit after being ambushed by terrorists.
On Tuesday, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh accused the main salafist movement, Ansar al-Sharia, of liaising with al-Qaeda and carrying out the murders of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi earlier this year.
The buffer zone announcement comes just a week after President Moncef Marzouki announced a series of changes atop the country’s defence and intelligence establishments.
On August 22nd, Marzouki appointed a new chief for the air force staffs and a new director for military intelligence. The changes have inspired hope in Tunisians looking for more effectiveness in combating terrorism.
The latest defence shake ups follow the replacement of General Rachid Ammar with Salah Hamdi as the country’s new army chief of staff.
“The appointment was made to fill the vacuum created by the retirement of chief of general staffs of the three armies Gen. Rachid Ammar,” presidential spokesperson Adnan Moncer said at a press conference on July 8th. “However, the post of chief of three armies is not an original plan in the Tunisian army.”
Mohamed Abbou, a political leader from the Democratic Movement, was a vocal critic of Ammar. He said the appointment of General Hamdi changed the situation on the ground, as the army has stepped up its bombardment of Jebel Chaambi and elimination of the terrorists.
“Rachid Ammar was in total control of the defence ministry, and no change could be introduced without his approval,” Abbou added in press statements.
“However, the president has the right to appoint any cadres he wants.”
Hamma Hammami, a prominent leader of the leftist Popular Front, said the appointments were suspicious and lacked transparency.
“As far as the army is concerned, there are traditions in job hierarchy and promotions,” he said. “However, these appointments reversed this equation and can affect the military institution.”
However, Moncer, the presidential spokesman, denied that and said the new appointments had nothing to do with the re-deployment of military units.
“Rather, the goal of these appointments is to create as much harmony and uniformity as possible on the level of military command at this stage in which the country is waging a war on terrorism,” he said.
Retiree Mokhtar al-Abidi said any change helping in defeating terrorism was a welcomed one. “I hope these appointments and changes are not just for the settlement of scores and favouritism,” he added.