Since the beginning of April, Tunisian soldiers in the thousands have been sent to the Chaambi Mountains that border Algeria in operations to find militants that are al-Qaeda linked and seeking refuge. Some of the militants have fled from Mali following the French intervention there in 2013.
During Wednesday night’s attack, militants with rifles as well as rocket-propelled grenades ambushed the military checkpoints set up in an attempt to control that region.
The soldiers were attacked by the gunmen when they were breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan celebrated by Muslims. Twenty other soldiers were wounded but survived the attack.
Tunisia is struggling with the increase of Islamist militants who are radical, since the popular revolt in 2011 ended the rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali the autocrat, and started the country on its fragile steps to democracy.
The North Africa arm of al-Qaeda known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed attacks previously in Tunisia, but Ansar al Sharia another radical militant groups, which is listed by Washington as a terrorist group, has also received blame.
The Chaambi range is difficult terrain that allows access to Algeria. The military forces from Tunisia conducted a number of raids in the mountains and bombarded caves after more than 8 soldiers were captured and then killed in 2013.
The military in Tunisia has had problems with landmines and the porous border has complicated the ability of tracking the militants who use the region for training.
Tunisia, which is one of the most secular states in the Arab world, has taken a number of steps closer to democracy since the revolt in 2011.
A new constitution was adopted and a caretaker government established until this year’s election in an attempt to ease the tensions between the powerful Islamist party and its secular opponents.
However, hardline Islamists that are ultra-conservative remain influential. Tunisia remains one of the areas main sources for jihadist fighters out of North Africa.