Tunisia has banned the congress of hardline Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia due to be held later this week, the ruling Islamist party's leader said Wednesday, setting the stage for a possible showdown.
"The government has decided to prohibit this congress whose organisers have not obtained prior permission from the authorities as required by law," Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi told a news conference.
"The authorities must apply the law without distinction. We support the firmness of the government in applying the law for all," said Ghannouchi, who also condemned the use of violence in the name of Islam.
He was speaking shortly after the Salafist group said tens of thousands of people would attend its annual congress on Sunday at the historic mosque in Kairouan, considered Islam's fourth holiest city, and insisted it did not need permission.
Salafists advocate an ultra-conservative brand of Sunni Islam, and Ansar al-Sharia is considered the most radical of the extremist groups that emerged in Tunisia after the January 2011 revolution that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The group's fugitive leader Abu Iyadh, a former Al-Qaeda combatant in Afghanistan, is accused of orchestrating numerous acts of violence, including a deadly attack on the US embassy last September that left four Islamists dead.
He has made numerous inflammatory statements about the government, including last weekend when he threatened to wage war against it, saying that by targeting his followers it was attacking Islam.
The government has hardened its position towards Muslim extremists in recent months, after the moderate Islamist party Ennahda was strongly criticised for being too lenient and failing to prevent a wave of violence around the country.
Ghannouchi insisted on Thursday that violence perpetrated in the name of religion was "the worst kind" of violence, and had "no legitimacy, neither in terms of the law or in terms of Islam".
"Dialogue is not possible with those who use weapons and lay mines," the veteran Ennahda leader added, referring to two groups of armed jihadists the army is hunting in a mountainous region along the border with Algeria.
Ghannouchi's comments came in contrast to the party's previous position towards Tunisia's extremist groups, opposing the use of force and favouring talks.
Thousands attended Ansar al-Sharia's gathering in 2012, some in Afghan military garb, waving swords and chanting slogans that included: "We are all children of Osama (bin Laden)."
One of the group's leaders, Sami Essid, said earlier on Wednesday that he was expecting more than 40,000 people to attend this year's annual congress.
"On Sunday, we will God willing hold our congress and there will be more than 40,000 of us in Kairouan," Essid, who also fought in Afghanistan, told AFP, adding: "We do not need any authorisation to organise our meeting."
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, an independent in the ruling coalition, said last week he would bring to justice "anyone inciting to murder or hatred... or who pitches tents for preaching in," in a clear reference to the radical Islamists.
At the weekend, police fired tear gas in the capital and took steps elsewhere around the country to disperse Salafist groups trying to set up tents to preach in and distribute pamphlets.
The interior ministry has already said political parties and associations are required to obtain permission for all public activity, and has made known its determination to enforce the law.