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Tunisian security forces in deadly clashes near Libyan border

Thirty-five militants, 10 Tunisian security personnel and seven civilians were all killed in an attack on a guard post and barracks in Ben Guerdane
Tunisian special forces take up position during clashes on Monday in the southern town of Ben Guerdane (AFP)

More than 50 people, including a 12-year-old child, have been killed in clashes between Tunisian security forces and gunmen near the Libyan border on Monday, according to Tunisia's defence ministry and medical staff. 

The gunmen attempted to attack a National Guard post and an army barracks in the town of Ben Guerdane, triggering a firefight, according to state television.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi denounced the attacks as an "unprecedented" and coordinated assaults which were "maybe aimed at controlling" the border region with Libya.

He also vowed to "exterminate these rats".

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid later said that the attack was aimed at setting up an Islamic State group "emirate" in the region. 

"The purpose of the attack was to disrupt the security situation in our country and establish a Daesh emirate in Ben Guerdane," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

"But thanks to all the efforts, to the cooperation between our national army and our internal security forces, the reaction was strong and fast," said Essid.

According to the latest figures, 35 militants, 10 Tunisian security personnel, and seven civilians were all killed. 

The attack prompted Tunisian authorities to declare a nighttime curfew in the town. Residents reported that entrances to Ben Guerdane had been sealed off by security forces. 

Mosaique FM radio said the violence erupted at 4:30am and residents told AFP it was still raging after daybreak.

Troops have been on alert in the border area following reports that militants had been slipping across since a US air strike on an Islamic State (IS) group training camp in Libya on 18 February killed dozens of Tunisian militants.

At least four of the five militants killed in an hour-long firefight near Ben Guerdane last Wednesday were Tunisians who had entered from Libya in a bid to carry out attacks in their homeland, the interior ministry said.

Deadly attacks by IS on foreign holidaymakers last year, which dealt a devastating blow to Tunisia's tourism industry, are believed to have been planned from Libya.

Tunisia has built a 200-kilometre (125-mile) barrier that stretches about half the length of its border with Libya in an attempt to stop militants infiltrating.

Last month's US strike on the IS training camp outside the Libyan city of Sabratha targeted the suspected mastermind of two of last year's attacks, Noureddine Chouchane.

Washington has said Chouchane was likely among the dozens of militants killed, and that the strike probably averted a mass shooting or similar attack in Tunisia.

Britain announced last week that it was sending a team of around 20 soldiers to Tunisia to train troops patrolling the border with Libya.

Thirty Britons were among 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse last June.

And last March, gunmen killed 21 tourists and a policeman at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

According to a UN working group on the use of mercenaries, more than 5,000 Tunisians, mostly aged from 18 to 35, have travelled abroad to join militant groups including IS.