TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s security forces led a counterterrorism sweep in a mountainous central region Friday and killed five suspected extremists even as Western governments were calling their nationals home from a country they deem unsafe.
Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Walid Louguini told The Associated Press that a gunfight erupted Friday morning as a special national guard unit chased eight suspected extremists in the Ouled Bouomrane area. He said the operation was ongoing.
The army and national guard operation came a day after Britain’s government urged all U.K. tourists to leave Tunisia because an extremist attack is “highly likely,” saying the North African country hasn’t done enough to enhance security.
Thirty British tourists were among 38 victims killed by an Islamic extremist at beach resort in coastal Sousse on June 26.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid, speaking in a parliamentary debate, said his government “did everything in our power to protect (British) citizens and their interests, as well as those of all other countries.”
The government has carried out 7,000 security operations since the museum killing, arresting 1,000 people and stopping 15,000 young people from traveling to fight jihad abroad, Essid said, and was working to remedy “shortcomings.”
“Our country is going through a delicate situation, and is in danger,” he said.
Many Western European tour operators suspended trips to Tunisia following the Sousse killings.
France’s Foreign Ministry on Friday urged its citizens in Tunisia to be “particularly vigilant” but stopped short of urging departures. Germany, two of whose citizens died in the Sousse shooting, made no immediate change to its travel advice.
Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Finland all discouraged citizens from non-essential travel to Tunisia.
Such decisions are a new wound for Tunisia’s struggling tourism industry and for the nation’s reputation as it tries to solidify its new democracy in a volatile region. An attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March left 22 dead, mostly foreign tourists.
Hotels in the resort of Hammamet were largely empty of foreign tourists Friday. At one, the swimming pool glistened in the Mediterranean sun, unperturbed by swimmers.
British Embassy officials were helping Friday with departures of British tourists at the Enfidha airport, but would not talk about the ramifications of the government’s warning.
The head of the Islamist party Ennahda’s group in parliament, Noureddine Bhiri, called the British decision “manifestly damaging to Tunisia and its democratic process.”
A French diplomat said French, British and German governments will work with Tunisia, notably in improving airport security and protecting tourist sites and foreign companies. The diplomat, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said Western experts would meet next week in Tunis to discuss security measures.
Myles Roberts, a 37-year-old Londoner, arrived in Tunisia on Wednesday a one-week trip. He said he was “reluctant to leave” but had no other way to get back home because Thomas Cook made plain that there would be no flights out after Sunday.
He said Britain’s call for travelers to return was tantamount to giving in to terrorism.
“We had IRA (Irish Republican Army) for 40 years, and we had 7/7,” Roberts said, referring to attacks in London that killed 52 subway and bus passengers on July 7, 2005. “It’s very safe here … The security is higher than usual but that is expected.”
Danica Kirka and Ashley Chan in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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