Exceptionally deadly clashes between Tunisian forces and extremist attackers left at least 53 people dead Monday near Tunisia's border with Libya, the government said, amid growing fears that violence from Libya could destabilize the whole region.
Gunmen attacked the city of Ben Guerdane at dawn Monday and fighting continued past nightfall. Tunisia closed its border with Libya and the Tunisian interior and defense ministers traveled to the town to oversee the operation, according to a joint statement from their ministries.
Tunisian Prime Minister Hassid Essid said on Wtaniya television that the attack was an Islamic State attempt to carve out a stronghold on the border. No group claimed immediate responsibility, but two IS-affiliated websites said Islamic State group militants were engaged in the fighting.
"This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organized. Its goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate," Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and reiterated the U.N.'s commitment "to stand with the people of Tunisia as they confront the scourge of terrorism and work to preserve the gains of the revolution," his spokesman said.
At dawn Monday, gunmen targeted a police station and military facilities in Ben Guerdane, Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Yasser Mosbah told The Associated Press. A night curfew was ordered in Ben Guerdane until further notice.
The attack and ensuing fighting left 35 attackers, seven civilians and 11 members of Tunisia's security forces dead, according to the joint government statement.
A 12-year-old girl was among those killed.
Corpses lay in the street and gunmen hid in homes as darkness fell, gunfire sporadically ringing out, according to resident and local journalist Raoudha Bouttar.
Another witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions from the attackers, said the gunmen spoke of creating a caliphate and "liberating" the town.
Tunisian forces have repeatedly clashed with extremists on the borders of Libya and Algeria in recent years, but Monday's fighting was unusually bloody. Tunisia has been as a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in democracy and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.
An uprising in neighboring Libya led to the ouster and killing of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but since then the country has fallen into chaos, allowing the Islamic State group to take control of several cities. The divided country is ruled by two parliaments: an internationally recognized body based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a rival government, backed by Islamist-allied militias, that controls the capital, Tripoli.
Tunisia is especially worried about the IS presence in Libya after dozens of tourists were killed in attacks in Tunisia last year. IS extremists claimed responsibility for those attacks, and Tunisian authorities said the attackers had been trained in Libya.
The Tunisian military sent reinforcements and helicopters to the area around Ben Guerdane and authorities were hunting several attackers still at large. Officials urged residents to stay indoors.
France's foreign ministry condemned Monday's attack and identified the gunmen as "terrorists coming from Libyan territory."
"This attack just reinforces the urgent need for a political solution in Libya," the ministry said in a statement, adding that Tunisia was targeted because of its "exemplary democratic transition."
Last week, Tunisian security forces killed five heavily armed men in an hours-long firefight after they crossed into the country from Libya with a larger group. Tunisian security forces had been placed on alert based on "precise information" of possible border infiltrations following a Feb. 19 U.S. raid on an IS camp near the Libyan town of Sabratha, not far from the Tunisian border, the French statement said.
Defense Minister Farhat Horchani said last week that German and American security experts were expected to arrive Monday in Tunis to help Tunisia devise a new electronic video surveillance system of its border with Libya.
Associated Press reporter Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.