Authorities in Tunisia have recovered the body of a police officer who was kidnapped and beheaded by militants near the city of El Kef, in the northwest corner of the country near the border with Algeria.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the beheading, which occurred Sunday, just one week after Tunisia's first free election since the country gained independence from France in 1956.
According to Tunisian daily L'Orient Le Jour, Tunisia's interior minister said "terrorists" were responsible for the killing, and indicated that the officer was not on duty when he was abducted. According to official reports from the Tunisian government, the officer was driving in a car with his brother when armed men seized the vehicle, presumably to commit a robbery. When they found out that one of their victims was a law enforcement officer, they decided instead to kidnap and behead him. The victim's brother was released unharmed.
Tunisian daily La Presse identified the police officer as Hassan Soltani. His body was discovered Monday morning in the town of Touiref, seven miles north of El Kef. According to La Presse, Islamist militants operating on the Algerian-Tunisian border have previously built fake barricades along the region's backroads to carry out attacks. Militants have reportedly visited the area regularly to stock up on food and supplies.
In an article published November 5, Tunisian weekly Jeune Afrique reported that Islamist militants from the same province as El Kef attacked an army bus transporting soldiers and their families, killing five servicemen. On November 20, Tunisian police killed a militant in the central town of Bouzid while he was buying meat to feed his group.
Speaking to VICE News, a spokesperson for the Tunisian defense ministry confirmed that operations are in progress in the region to track down "stateless" terrorists. The defense ministry said militant groups operating around El Kef include fighters from neighboring Libya and Algeria. There are also reports that Syrians have come to inflate the ranks of Islamist militants.
The Soldiers of the Caliphate — a splinter group from al Qaeda that has pledged loyalty to the Islamic State — claimed responsibility for the execution of hostage Hervé Gourdel, a French mountain guide who was beheaded in Algeria on September 24.
Ever since the popular uprising that overthrew the government of long-standing ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and touched off the Arab Spring, northwest Tunisia has weathered and foiled several terrorist attacks masterminded by Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist groups.
Roughly 63 percent of Tunisia's registered voters turned out November 23 to participate in the country's first open democratic presidential election. With more than 25 names on the ballot, no single candidate secured a majority of the vote, sending the elections into a run-off between incumbent Moncef Marzouki and anti-Islamist leader Béji Caïd Essebsi.
The second round of elections is set for December 28.
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