Tunisia says escaped Islamist convicts believed to be behind bank robbery

TUNIS (Reuters) – The Tunisian National Guard said two of five Islamists who escaped from prison this week are believed to have carried out an armed robbery of a bank near the capital on Friday.

Five Islamists convicted of killing two secular politicians and policemen escaped from jail on Tuesday in a rare security breach for the North African country, prompting the government to dismiss top intelligence officials.

The robbery in the Boumhele near Tunis comes just as the tourism sector has begun to recover after years of stagnation due to jihadist attacks and the COVID pandemic.

The National Guard said that security units had been deployed to track down the fugitives, reinforced by a helicopter.

President Kais Saied said this week that what happened was not an ordinary escape, but rather a smuggling operation that was planned for months with the aim of causing chaos in the country.

Security officials say that the five convicts were “very dangerous terrorists”.

The five men included one who had been serving a 24-year sentence for the assassination of secular politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.

Another of the five had taken part in violent attacks that have shaken Tunisia in the past decade. He had also killed a policeman in 2014 in the Chaambi Mountains near the Algerian border, security forces said.

Tunisia has suffered attacks by jihadist groups since the advent of democracy in 2011 that have killed dozens of policemen, foreign tourists and others. It has had some success in recent years in arresting or killing prominent Islamist militants.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Nick Macfie)