Tunisia's border with Libya was closed on Tuesday after a brazen attack by suspected ISIL gunmen on a frontier town left at least 55 people dead.

Gunmen attacked the eastern town of Ben Gardane on Monday and fighting continued past nightfall. 

Tunisian Prime Minister Hassid Essid said the assault was an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attempt to carve out a stronghold on the border.

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"This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organised. Its goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate," Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said.

The death toll includes 36 attackers, seven civilians and 12 members of Tunisia's security forces, Essid said.

Tunisian interior and defence ministers travelled to the town to oversee heightened border protection operations on Tuesday, according to a joint statement.

The attackers simultaneously targeted an army barracks and police posts with heavy weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades.

The government imposed a curfew in Ben Gardane.

A security and military campaign began last week in Ben Gardane after Tunisian security officials said "terrorist groups" had infiltrated the country.

Officials said that the campaign followed raids in Libya against ISIL.

Fighters trained in Libya carried out several deadly attacks inside Tunisia last year.


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Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Ben Gardane, said the strategically important town is regarded as the "gateway to Libya".

It serves as a hub for arms trafficking and smuggling of everyday goods.

"Tunisia has built a fence along the border with Libya, but that doesn't seem to stop the movement of armed attackers coming in from Libya and targeting the army and security forces," she said.

"In the past week we have seen several incidents of people coming across."

Last Wednesday, troops killed five armed men in a firefight outside the town, in which a civilian was also killed and a commander wounded.

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

 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies