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14 Tunisian troops killed in deadliest attack on army
by Staff Writers
Tunis (AFP) July 17, 2014

US raises rights with China in counterterror talks
Washington (AFP) July 17, 2014 - The United States said Thursday it raised concerns with China about human rights in the Xinjiang region after activists voiced outrage over a meeting between the two powers on counterterrorism.

US and Chinese officials met Tuesday in Washington on counterterrorism cooperation, amid Beijing's widening crackdown on Uighur activists in the far western Xinjiang region following a string of deadly attacks.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US side highlighted to China a "comprehensive approach" on counterterrorism, including the need to respect minority rights.

"We will continue to urge Chinese officials to take steps to reduce tensions and uphold its international commitments to protect religious freedom," Psaki told reporters.

Beijing has cast its fight against Uighur separatists as akin to the US-led "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

China has witnessed a rising number of attacks blamed on Uighur militants, including a knife assault on a train station that killed 29 people in March and an explosive and vehicle attack in a market that killed 39 in May.

Chinese state-run media quoted Vice Foreign Minister Chen Guoping, who took part in the talks, as describing the meeting as a way to build trust between the United States and China.

China voiced opposition to "double standards" on terrorism, he said, adding that the United States showed understanding over Beijing's efforts to crack down on the militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Critics say that China has alienated Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, through cultural and religious repression and that organized militants are a negligible force.

Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, estimated that Beijing in recent weeks has prosecuted at least 200 Uighurs on terror charges in trials "not within a nautical mile of international standards."

Richardson said she was "baffled" why the United States would hold the dialogue, as China was seeking an "imprimatur of approval" and Washington could take up practical issues of cooperation elsewhere.

"If you're a Uighur who has just been sentenced baselessly on terrorism charges and you see that the US is engaging in a counter-terrorism dialogue with the Chinese government, what's your perception of where Washington's interests are or what its priorities are?" she asked.

Richardson said that the United States, which agreed to resume the dialogue during a recent visit to Beijing by Secretary of State John Kerry, should have set conditions for the talks such as the release of Ilham Tohti, a prominent academic detained on charges that could carry the death penalty.

Suspected jihadists killed 14 Tunisian soldiers near the Algerian border, officials said Thursday, in the worst such attack in the army's history as it presses a crackdown on radical Islamists.

The attack took place in the Mount Chaambi region on Wednesday evening as the soldiers were breaking their day-long Ramadan fast.

The defence ministry said 40 to 60 "terrorists", a term used to refer to Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, opened fire on twin army posts with machine-guns and grenade launchers.

Fourteen soldiers died, 18 were wounded and another went missing, making it the heaviest toll inflicted on the army since Tunisia's independence in 1956, the ministry said.

"Most of the terrorists infiltrated from outside the Chaambi region, probably from outside the borders," said Defence Minister Ghazi Jeribi.

He said Tunisians, Algerians and unidentified "foreign mercenaries" were among the assailants. The army said a Tunisian jihadist was killed.

The ministry has previously insisted that militants the army has been hunting since late 2012 in the remote western border region are linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The army said nine of the soldiers had burned to death.

"These attacks cost us 14 martyrs. Five were hit by bullets and nine were burned ... when the tent they were in caught fire," after it was hit by grenades, the army's head of ground operations, Souheil Chmengui, told a press conference.

"This is open war. The war of a country and a people against an evil," he said, pledging to combat terrorism "day and night".

The army's chief of staff, Mohamed Salah Hamdi, said it was unclear if the missing soldier had been killed, wounded or taken hostage.

President Moncef Marzouki declared three days of national mourning, while government spokesman Nidhal Ouerfelli condemned what he called a "heinous act".

The attacks came almost a year to the day after the bodies of eight Tunisian soldiers were found, some of them with their throats slit, after being an ambush in the western Kasserine region.

- Persistent jihadist threat -

Since the 2011 revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been rocked by violence blamed on hardline Islamists who were suppressed under the former dictator.

The country has made tangible progress this year in terms of stability, and elections are due to take place in just over three months, after political turmoil in 2013 triggered by the assassination of two opposition politicians.

But Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the aim of assailants was to undermine the political transition by forcing the October 26 legislative election and the November 23 presidential poll to be delayed.

In January, after a tense standoff between rival factions, parliament finally adopted a new constitution and the ruling coalition led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda resigned, allowing for the formation of an interim administration of independents.

But the jihadist threat has cast a shadow over any political gains.

Four Tunisian soldiers were killed by a land mine in the northwest Kef region during an anti-terror operation earlier this month, a day after four soldiers and two policemen were wounded by a roadside bomb in the same area.

Last month AQIM, the global terror network's North Africa branch, for the first time claimed responsibility for recent attacks in Tunisia, including an assault on the home of the interior minister that killed four security guards.

Officials insist the May 27 attack Ben Jeddou's home in the Kasserine region was a "revenge" attack in response to successes achieved by the security forces in their anti-terrorist campaign.

The authorities have designated Mount Chaambi and neighbouring mountain districts a closed military zone, and warned of the growing threat posed by "terrorist organisations" based there.

Since December 2012, Tunisia's security forces have been battling jihadists hiding in Mount Chaambi and Kef regions, which straddle the Algerian border, launching a series of major land and air operations.


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