Tunisian forces killed nine "terrorists" and seized explosives west of the capital in an area previously spared from Islamist militancy but where two policemen were killed this week, officials said Saturday.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring has been locked in a political crisis for months, with the opposition accusing the ruling Islamist movement Ennahda of failing to stem a rise in jihadist violence since the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
While authorities hailed a military "success" west of the capital, Ennahda and the opposition announced the start of negotiations next Wednesday aimed at ending Tunisia's political crisis.
Tunisian forces killed the suspects in the Mount Taouyer area of Beja region, 70 kilometres (40 miles) from Tunis, the defence ministry said, quoted by the official TAP news agency.
The interior ministry said four members of the "terrorist" group were captured and two escaped during the military operation to hunt down a jihadist cell blamed for Thursday's killing of two policemen.
"The operation is almost ended and we consider it has been a success," interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told a press conference.
He said the cell belonged to the radical Salafist movement Ansar al-Sharia, which the authorities have branded a "terrorist" group although it denies resorting to violence.
Security forces, five of who were wounded in the operation, seized two houses serving as a hideout and two tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser, and pesticides used to make explosives, the spokesman said.
"The terrorist threat still exists. There are sleeper cells and we expect losses in the ranks of the (security) forces because we are at war against terrorism," said Aroui.
Since the 2011 uprising that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia has seen a rise in attacks by jihadist groups formerly suppressed by Ben Ali.
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Some 15 soldiers and police have been killed since December in the hunt for militants allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda in the Mount Chaambi region along the border with Algeria, but Saturday's operation was the first of its kind in Beja, which is much closer to the capital.
The defence ministry has said it lacks the resources to combat militant groups and has struggled to contain them.
On Friday, in a sign of rising frustration over the costly fight against jihadists, protesting security forces drove Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and President Moncef Marzouki away from a memorial service for the policemen killed in Beja.
National dialogue to start Wednesday
Tunisia has been in a state of political paralysis since July, when prominent opposition lawmaker Mohamed Brahmi was shot dead by suspected jihadists, in circumstances similar to the murder of another opposition figure, Chokri Belaid, six months earlier.
Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated in the killings, with the interior ministry saying its leader, Abou Iyadh, is holed up in Mount Chaambi.
The opposition accuses the ruling Ennahda, which swept Tunisia's first post-revolutionary elections, of failing to combat a rise in jihadist militancy.
The two sides said Saturday they will launch a repeatedly delayed national dialogue on Wednesday in a bid to resolve the dispute.
The announcement came two weeks after Ennahda agreed to stand down by late October as part of a roadmap to form a government of independents.
But Ennahda reiterated Saturday that it will only stand down once a constitution is ratified, while the opposition is demanding the formation of a new government at the launch of the process.
The roadmap is also aimed at introducing a new constitution, electoral laws and setting a timetable for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections to end the political deadlock.