TUNISIA

How Tunisian onlookers got in the middle of an anti-jihadist op

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Tunisian security forces Wednesday killed five jihadists who had taken refuge in a house in Ben Guerdane, a city and commune near the Libyan border. During the firefight, the security forces seemed overwhelmed by the presence of a large number of onlookers, who were quite pushy in their attempts to take smartphone photos of the bloody operation. Our Observer describes the surreal scene.

According to the authorities, the jihadists had recently crossed the nearby Libyan border into Tunisia. They drove their three vehicles to a small village called El-Aouija, which is about five kilometres from the city of Ben Guerdane. They took over a house there after chasing away its residents. Authorities followed them and, according to witnesses, the firefight began around 4pm.

Several videos of the scene started circulating on social media. This footage shows observers on the frontline with the police officers, crowding in to watch, film and even suggest the best angle to shoot from. For example, in the video below, you can see overwhelmed policemen trying to shoot at the jihadist hide-out while repeatedly asking the onlookers to get back.

At about 58 seconds into the video, two people continue to advance despite the police warnings. They shelter behind a shrub to film, but the bush is so small that they are practically in the open.

The security forces take shelter behind a house that faces the white building being used as a hide-out by the jihadists. Periodically, one of the officers peers around the corner of the house to try to spot the jihadists. At 1:15, an onlooker wearing a blue jacket gets close behind a police officer getting ready to shoot. A few seconds later [at 1:29], a policeman sets his machine gun on the ground while another seems to be telling him where to shoot.

As soon as that onlooker leaves, another comes up to the officer [at 1:49].

At 2:15, a frustrated policeman yells: "Get back! Let them work! Please, leave them alone so they can organise!" But the onlookers don’t move.

This cat and mouse game continues for the next few minutes…

At no point during the shootout did the policemen manage to construct a security barrier. According to authorities, one civilian was killed by a stray bullet. A police commander sustained a head injury.

In this video, a group of uniformed policemen go towards the site of the attack. They are followed by dozens of young people, whistling and applauding.

These images show the policemen followed by a huge crowd as the go towards the jihadist hideout.

"It was like a football match"

Ali Saïdi teaches in a primary school in Ben Guerdane. He observed part of the shootout, but maintained a safe distance.

The locals knew that there were terrorists around because, the night before the shootout, the police were tipped off by the Libyan police that three vehicles belonging to terrorists were headed towards the border.

The villagers saw the vehicles approaching Ben Guerdane the next day. Then, it all started happening very quickly. We learned that the terrorists had staked out in a house in El-Aouija. The residents felt strongly about the fight against terrorism and they weren’t scared. They wanted to show their support for the security forces.

Some people even arrived on scene before the security forces. They tried to block the road with their cars to prevent the jihadists from fleeing or from going towards Ben Guerdane.

This photo, which has been circulating on social media, shows young people sheltered behind a bush as they film a shootout with their mobile phones.

Other young people hurried to watch the scene unfold. It was like it was a football match! There were hundreds of people gathered around the house.

Walid Zarrouk, a former union leader and policeman, is a security consultant.

The Tunisian population has shown real solidarity against terrorism and that is really positive. During the Sousse attack in June 2015, young people made a human chain to shelter tourists from the terrorist who was gunning down Westerners on the beach.

But, nevertheless, the kind of behaviour exhibited in this instance is unacceptable. Having so many onlookers increases the risks considerably. They could be injured or killed during the shootout. One of the jihadists could also have infiltrated the crowd and detonated an explosive.

In the video, you can see that the security forces are having trouble figuring out how to manage the situation. There weren’t enough of them to push back the civilians and close off the area.

We also need to make sure that civilians aren’t allowed to interfere with the crime scene so as not to alter any evidence. The area needs to be secured so that the police can carry out a thorough investigation.

Civilians merrily stomp all over the crime scene, paying no heed to the yellow ribbon sectioning it off. Photo: Facebook.

I think that, as the fight against terrorism is relatively new in Tunisia, people don’t really understand how it works. We need to raise awareness about it so that people understand how important it is to hinder the work of the security forces.