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TUNIS, July 16 (Reuters) - Gunmen attacked Tunisian military checkpoints near the Algerian border, killing as many as five soldiers in an area where the army has been conducting an operation to flush out Islamist militant fighters, the TAP state news agency and officials said on Wednesday.
The gunmen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, attacked the checkpoints in the Mount Chaambi area, according to authorities. Since April, thousands of Tunisian troops have been deployed to the area, where a small group of militants have been holed up, some since the French military operation drove al Qaeda-affiliated fighters out of Mali last year.
"They attacked military checkpoints in Mount Chaambi, there are dead and wounded in this attack with RPGs and rifles," Rachid Hawela, a defense ministry spokesman said.
The TAP agency said five soldiers were killed and nine more wounded in the attacks. But the defense minister said later the preliminary death toll was two soldiers killed and one militant dead.
One of the Arab world's most secular states, Tunisia has adopted a new constitution and a caretaker government has taken over as a way to ease tensions between a leading Islamist party and secular opponents after its 2011 revolt against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
But the small North African country has struggled with the rise of hardline Islamist militants. Tunisian security officials estimate the numbers in the mountains are only in the dozens, but the threat of Islamist violence is clear.
One Tunisian militant group, Ansar al-Sharia has been listed as a terrorist organisation by Washington, and has clashed repeatedly with security forces. Some of the militants in Chaambi are tied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's North African branch. (Reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Ken Wills)