The suspected Islamist assassin of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, whose death last February sparked social and political upheaval, has been killed in a police raid, the government said Tuesday.
Belaid was a charismatic leftist politician and virulent critic of the Islamist party Ennahda then in power. His murder triggered massive anti-government protests and a crisis from which Tunisia has only recently started to emerge.
His was the first of two political assassinations last year, both blamed on jihadists, which eventually forced Ennahda to step down in January in the face of accusations from the mainly secular opposition that it had failed to tackle a surge of Islamist extremism since the Arab Spring revolution of 2011.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the National Guard killed "seven heavily armed terrorists" in an operation launched Monday afternoon at a house in a Tunis suburb, among them Kamel Gadhgadhi.
"Gadhgadhi is the one who carried out the political assassination of Chokri Belaid," the minister told a news conference, adding that five of the seven militants had been identified.
"It's the best present that we could give Tunisians," Ben Jeddou added.
Security forces surrounded the building in Raoued after receiving a tip-off that heavily armed militants were holed up in it.
In the ensuing gunbattle, which lasted until Tuesday morning, a policeman was also killed.
"We wanted to avoid casualties and we asked them to give themselves up. (But) each of them was carrying automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests," Ben Jeddou said, adding that security forces were met with "violent resistance."
Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui showed pictures taken inside the house where the siege took place, including of Gadhgadhi.
Security forces recovered a large weapons cache inside, Aroui said, adding that the militants were probably planning to carry out an attack.
Tunisians have been preparing to commemorate the anniversary on Thursday of Belaid's murder.
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He was gunned down at close range outside his home, with the authorities blaming jihadists from Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafist group suspected of links to Al-Qaeda that was blacklisted as a terrorist organisation last summer.
But the group never claimed the attack, and neither the assassin nor the organisers had ever been found, with only suspected accomplices detained.
'We don't know anything'
Relatives of the slain politician, who at the time directly blamed Ennahda for the attack, were planning a press conference on Thursday and a candlelit vigil in central Tunis.
Speaking before the police raid on Monday, Belaid's widow Basma Khalfaoui accused Ennahda of hiding key documents in the murder inquiry and said she was expecting strong measures from a government of independents that replaced the Islamist-led administration late last month.
"We don't know anything (about what really happened). All scenarios are possible," she told AFP.
Activists have also called for a demonstration on Saturday, to mark the anniversary of Belaid's burial, when a general strike brought Tunisia to a standstill and tens of thousands turned out to pay homage to him.
Belaid's murder was followed by an intensification of violence between security forces and jihadist groups, with some 20 soldiers and police killed last year.
The opposition seized upon his assassination as proof that Ennahda had failed to contain militant Islamist groups suppressed under veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the 2011 uprising.
Ennahda's then prime minister Hamadi Jebali tried to form a cabinet of technocrats in a bid to end the crisis, but failed to do so in the face of opposition from his party and finally resigned.
Opposition parties were furious at the appointment of another Islamist, Ali Larayedh, to replace Jebali, a choice that deepened political divisions, especially after the assassination on July 25 of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi, also by suspected jihadists.
Ennahda, which won Tunisia's first free elections in October 2011, continued to insist on its right to lead the coalition government.
But last month, under a hard-won agreement to end the political turmoil, it finally ceded power to the government of technocrats headed by premier Mehdi Jomaa and tasked with leading the country to fresh elections.