A member of Tunisia’s security forces has been killed in a shootout with an armed group at its hideout in a town near the capital.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui said the exchange of fire on Thursday came after two counterterrorism operations in the south of the country in which a private security guard was killed, several people were injured and two fighters captured.
The ministry said police traded gunfire with armed “terrorists” who had taken refuge in a house in the town of Oued Ellil, close to Tunis.
“Our agent died of a bullet wound in the eye sustained in clashes with a terrorist group,” the official told the AFP news agency at the scene on Thursday.
At least two women, including the wife of one of the gunmen, and an unknown number of children were inside the home where security forces were exchanging fire with an armed group holed up there, the Interior Ministry said.
“There are at least two men, at least two women and children [in the house]. We also have information on the presence of explosives,” ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told reporters.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Oued Ellil, said tensions were high in the town in the run-up to the second parliamentary election since the country’s 2011 revolution.
“Many are concerned that there is a deliberate attempt to disrupt this landmark election,” our correspondent said.
He noted that the rise of armed groups, which had in the past carried out deadly attacks on government buildings, officials, political leaders, and soldiers, is among the public’s biggest fears ahead of the election.
Lotfi Ben Jeddou, the Tunisian interior minister, told Al Jazeera that security forces already managed to foil a string of plots by armed groups to kill politicians and sew unrest in order to prevent the vote from taking place.
“The operations carried out by security forces in the past few weeks enabled us to dismantle a number of sleeper cells,” he said.
“They were planning to kill a number of Tunisian politicians and journalists to cause internal strife, drag the country into chaos and violence and also prevent holding the elections”.
With security heavily increased ahead of parliamentary election on Sunday, Aroui said the violence on Thursday came after clashes on Thursday in Kebili, 500km south of Tunis.
The suspects in Kebili were arrested after killing a private security guard in the gunfight, he said.
They had been “preparing operations in the area,” Aroui said, adding that two Kalashnikov assault rifles were seized.
The elections are seen as crucial to restoring stability in the North African nation, the cradle of the Arab Spring movements.
Since the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of Islamist political groups suppressed under the former autocratic president and the emergence of several armed groups.