KILL: Tunis to decide by Saturday on Salafist rally ban

Tunisia's government will decide by Saturday whether to allow or ban Salafists from holding their annual congress, the interior minister has said, while warning that "death threats" from radical Islamists will not be tolerated.

"The final decision will be taken today or tomorrow," Lotfi Ben Jeddou told Kalima radio on Friday.

"The government will not be swayed by death threats."

Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the moderate Islamist ruling party Ennahda, said this week the government had banned the hardline Salafist movement, Ansar al-Sharia, from holding their congress on Sunday.

Angered by that, the group vowed to go ahead with the gathering in the historical central city of Kairouan and warned that the government would be responsible should violence erupt.

"We are not asking permission from the government to preach the word of God and we warn against any police intervention to prevent the congress from taking place," spokesman Seifeddine Rais said on Thursday.

Rais said more than 40,000 people were expected to attend the congress and warned that "the government will be responsible for any drop of blood spilt."

Prime Minister "Ali Larayedh will answer for his policies before God," Rais said.

The interior minister warned that the government would not tolerate unrest.

"We have special forces to protect Tunisia," Ben Jeddou said.

"We do not accept death threats or incitement to hatred. We do not accept to be treated as tyrants."

Ansar al-Sharia did not apply to the government for a permit to hold the congress, he said, urging the Salafists to embrace "wisdom".

"We told them there should be no violence, physical or verbal, and that they should limit themselves to preaching (Islam). But so far they did not request a permit."

"God willing," Ben Jeddou said, "we will not have to resort to violence" against the Salafists if they break the law.

"We don't want a confrontation with them. They are Tunisians. We did not close their mosques; we did not prevent them from preaching. They are they ones who are raising the stakes."

The US embassy warned its citizens against travelling to Kairouan on the weekend, citing the possibility of unrest.

A travel advisory said "large rallies and demonstrations are possible" if Ansar al-Sharia go ahead with their plans to hold their congress.

"There is the potential for disruption to traffic in the area of Kairouan and possible confrontations with security forces. The embassy recommends against all travel to Kairouan during this period."

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 2011 revolution that overthrew veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Islamists have been blamed for a wave of violence across the country, including an attack on the US embassy in September that left four assailants dead.

The group's fugitive leader, Saif Allah Bin Hussein, a former Al-Qaeda fighter Afghanistan, warned last week he would wage war against the government, accusing it of policies in breach of Islam.

Ennahda leader Ghannouchi has said the Salafists were behind the brutal killing of a police officer this month, and that they acted in response to a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by one of their top clerics.

The victim was slaughtered, stripped and hidden in a mosque.

Bin Hussein, who goes by the name of Abu Iyadh, was jailed under Ben Ali but was freed after the uprising.

His movement has denied any connection with jihadists who are being pursued by the army in the border region with Algeria -- an operation that has wounded at least 16 members of the security forces.