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Roadside bomb kills 2 Tunisian soldiers during hunt for militants in mountain hideout

A roadside bomb killed two Tunisian soldiers Thursday while they were hunting al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near the Algerian border — the first military deaths from enemy fire in a campaign that began in December.

The explosion struck a military vehicle as it passed through the village of Doghra in the Jebel Chaambi mountain region, army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr said. The blast killed a chief warrant officer and a corporal, and wounded two other soldiers.

Tunisia has not suffered from armed extremist groups to the extent of neighboring Algeria, but after the French intervention in northern Mali scattered al-Qaida-linked groups, some have taken refuge in remote parts of the country, the government said.

A later statement from the ministry described the bomb as a "serious development" in the campaign against the militants and called on local residents to cooperate in the hunt.

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said in a news conference during the visit of his Turkish counterpart that despite the rugged terrain, the search for the militants would continue.

"Our position in the fight against terrorism and criminality will not change," he said. "We will pursue the terrorists on Jebel Chaambi until their group is dismantled and we catch those supporting them."

Since the discovery of a cell in December, the government has been conducting operations in the remote mountainous regions along the Algerian border and has already arrested around 45 people, mostly on charges of aiding the militants.

There are an estimated 30 militants in hiding, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui said, of which 20 are Tunisian and the rest are a mixture of Algerians and Libyans.

Around 20 soldiers have been injured since late April by the roadside bombs in the Jebel Chaambi area, Tunisia's highest mountain at 1,500 meters. Two soldiers had legs amputated. On Monday, an officer was killed by friendly fire.

Since the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in January 2011, Tunisia has seen a rise in ultraconservative Muslims known as salafis pushing for a greater piety in society.

Authorities say that the most aggressive of these groups, Ansar al-Shariah, has links to the militants, whom officials have also linked to a February assassination of a left-wing opposition politician.