TUNIS, Tunisia – Two forest camps near Tunisia's shared border with Algeria hid al-Qaida-linked networks that trained young men for fighting and organized the travel of already-seasoned fighters who hoped to strike out, Tunisia's top security official said Friday.
A police officer who stumbled upon one of the sites early this month died in a shootout with the militants, and his discovery led to 16 arrests and the dismantling of the two nascent cells.
Security forces seized explosives, guns and maps, as well combat gear and coded documents from one of the groups, which Interior Minister Ali Larayedh said was led by three Algerians with ties to the head of al-Qaida's North African offshoot AQIM. They had been active for about three months in the national forest in central Tunisia preparing young Tunisian men, including many who wanted to go to Libya and Algeria for fighting and more paramilitary training, he said.
The second group was discovered in another national forest in northern Tunisia, about 200 kilometers (100 miles) away, apparently with the sole purpose of moving experienced militants from Libya to Algeria, he said. Both camps were near the border with Algeria, and authorities there and in Libya cooperated in the investigation, Larayedh said.
"We strongly believe there are links between these two groups," Larayedh said.
A branch of al-Qaida is active in Algeria and has occasionally crossed into Tunisia, where hardline Islamists are on the rise since the ousting of a secular president in 2011.