Women, children caught in deadly firefight near Tunis

Women, children caught in deadly firefight near Tunis
Tunisian soldiers patrol a residence in Oued Ellil, west of Tunis October 23, 2014. A Tunisian policeman was killed and another wounded on Thursday when security forces clashed with Islamist militants on the outskirts of Tunis, three days before parliamentary elections which voters hope will help them advance toward full democracy.

TUNIS, Tunisia - Women and children were caught up in a police siege near the Tunisian capital Friday, with "terrorists" killing one officer in a firefight, ahead of elections that have sparked fears of jihadist attacks.

The confrontation at a home near Tunis erupted Thursday as security was tightened in the lead-up to Sunday's parliamentary vote, the first since the nation's 2011 revolution.

At least two women and two children were inside the house in the town of Oued Ellil where a group was exchanging gunfire with security forces, the interior ministry said.

"There are two children, that's why we haven't launched an assault but there will be an assault in the hours to come," ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said.

"We also have information on the presence of explosives," he added.

Sunday's election is seen as crucial to restoring stability in the North African nation, the cradle of the Arab Spring revolutionary movements, and the government has ordered the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and police for polling day.

Since the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of Islamists suppressed under the former autocratic president and the emergence of militant groups.

The jihadists have been blamed for a wave of attacks, including last year's assassination of two leftist politicians whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.

The Tunisian authorities gave no indication as to the identity of those involved in the ongoing siege, or whether they were members of any group.

Authorities have demanded that the children and women be allowed to leave the house and the police, using loudhailers, also told the gunmen - who they described as "terrorists" - to surrender.

'Human shields'

The government said the gunmen were using the women and children as "human shields," and Aroui said one of the women was the wife of one of the militants.

Police have been besieging the house for hours and gunfire exchanges could be heard intermittently late into the evening.

One policeman was killed in the firefight and another one was wounded.

"Our agent died of a bullet wound in the eye sustained in clashes with a terrorist group," a police official told AFP at the scene.

With security beefed up ahead of the election, Aroui told Mosaique FM radio that police had also clashed earlier Thursday with two "terrorists" in Kebili, 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of Tunis.

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