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Tunisia Arrests 32 Militants, Says It Foiled 'Spectacular' Attacks

Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid, left, leading a government that combines secular and Islamist parties, shakes hands with his predecessor, Mehdi Jomaa, during a handover ceremony in Tunis, Feb. 6, 2015.

Tunisia arrested 32 militant Islamists, some returning from fighting in Syria, who planned "spectacular" attacks, officials said Saturday.

News of the arrests came one day after a secular-Islamist coalition cabinet headed by Prime Minister Habib Essid took office. The new cabinet faces many challenges, including Islamist groups that emerged after a 2011 uprising.

"Counterterrorism forces foiled plots to carry out spectacular attacks against vital installations, including the Interior Ministry, security stations and civilian buildings in the capital, Tunis," said Mohammed Ali Aroui, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

"During the past three days, we arrested 32 terrorists from this group planning to attack targets in Tunis and other cities,'' he said, adding that the group included "several terrorists returned from fighting in Syria."

Aroui said troops killed Tunisian and Algerian militants in Mount Chaambi near the Algerian border.

Since a 2011 uprising in Tunisia toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country has become a major source of jihadi fighters traveling to Syria.

With an economy heavily reliant on foreign tourism, Tunisia has been cracking down on Islamist militants.

"Our priority will be to strengthen measures to combat extremism and strengthen security capabilities to confront terrorism and the protection of the democratic transition,'' Essid said this week.

The number of Tunisians fighting in Syria has been estimated at 3,000. A few hundred have returned to Tunisia, and many have been tracked down and arrested.

Aroui said special forces were pursuing other militants in the southern city of Gafsa led by an Islamist named Mourad Gaesseli. He did not give details about the identity of this group.

Ansar al-Sharia, which the United States lists as a foreign terrorist organization, was among the most hard-line movements calling for an Islamic state to emerge since Tunisia's 2011 uprising. The Libyan branch of the group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Libya in recent months.