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 said on Friday, warning however 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.

"The government will not be swayed by death threats," he added.

Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the moderate Islamist ruling party Ennahda, said earlier this week that the government had banned the hardline Salafist movement, Ansar al-Sharia, from holding their congress in the historical central city of Kairouan on Sunday.

Angered by the comments, the group vowed to go ahead with the gathering 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," Ansar al-Sharia spokesman Seifeddine Rais told a news conference in Tunis on Thursday.

"The government will be responsible for any drop of blood spilt," he said, adding that more than 40,000 people were expected at the Sunday gathering, the group's third, in Kairouan.

Prime Minister "Ali Larayedh will answer for his policies before God," Rais said, adding that "the Salafist movement is the object of systematic discrimination.

Minister Ben Jeddou on Friday warned that the government would not tolerate unrest.

"We have special forces to protect Tunisia," he said.

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

He also insisted that Ansar al-Sharia had not applied to the government for the permit necessary for such a meeting.

"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," to hold the congress, he said.

Ben Jeddou said the Salafists, who refuse to accept the atate's authority, should embrace "wisdom, integrate political life, accept others and renounce physical and verbal violence."

"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."

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.

Since the uprising, Tunisia's security has been severely challenged by the rise of militant Islamists, who are blamed for a wave of violence across the country, including an attack on the US embassy last September that left four assailants dead.

The government ruled by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has been in a tug-of-war with the Salafists.

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

Ennahda leader Ghannouchi last week revealed that Salafists had killed a Tunisian police officer earlier this month in line with a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by a top cleric, and blasted violence perpetrated in the name of Islam.

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

Bin Hussein, who goes by the name of Abu Iyadh, served time in jail during Ben Ali's but was released as part of a general amnesty after the uprising.

His movement has denied any connection with jihadists that 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.