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Tunisia ministry pictures: 'jihadists' or boy scouts?

© 2014 AFP

19 March 2014

Photographs of what the Tunisian government says are young jihadists training to fight in Syria have caused surprise amid claims that some show a boy scouts camp instead.

At a news conference on Monday, the ministry presented pictures of a group of young men working in a field, claiming that they belonged to a "terrorist cell" in the Monastir region southeast of Tunis.

"We have proof, documents, images... proving the existence of this camp where they were trying to train before sending young people to Syria," ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told reporters.

"It's not possible to doubt (the images)," he insisted, adding that it was a "recent operation" and that 11 people linked to the camp had been arrested.

But the same photos also appear on the Facebook page of a young Tunisian, tagged "Scouts of Menzel Nour" and dating back to 2011, with numerous comments accompanying them.

Walid Fekih, the spokesman for the Tunisian scouts, said on Tuesday that one of the photos shown by the ministry was taken in 2010.

"We were surprised, like everyone. This picture is not new. It dates back to May 2010. It was a group of scouts and their leader who were camping" in Montasir, he told private radio station Shems FM.

But contacted by AFP on Wednesday, Fekih appeared to backtrack.

"I received information from the interior ministry proving that some individuals in the photo, who have had no ties to the Tunisian scouts since late 2011, were preparing young people to go to Syria," he said.

The ministry itself could not be reached for comment.

The case has caused a stir on social networking sites, with Karima Souid, a Tunisian lawmaker, offering "advice" to the interior ministry.

"It's time to 'clean up' your teams," she said in a comment posted on Twitter.

Tunisian newspapers said residents of Menzel Nour protested outside the National Assembly on Tuesday to condemn the ministry's use of the pictures in its fight against militant Islamists.

Tunisia has been rocked by sporadic attacks blamed on jihadists since the 2011 revolution that toppled a decades-old dictatorship, and the government said last month that around 400 Tunisian jihadists had returned from fighting in the Syrian war.

The authorities have also claimed major success in their battle against militants, announcing in February that they had killed or arrested various heavily armed jihadists, including those blamed for assassinating two opposition politicians last year.

Some at the time criticised the security forces for not taking one of the chief suspects alive.