Tunis - Tunisia's hardline Salafist movement Ansar al-Sharia
vowed on Thursday to go ahead with its annual congress at the weekend in
defiance of a government ban on the controversial gathering.
"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," the group's spokesperson Seifeddine Rais
told a news conference in Tunis.
"The government will be responsible for any drop of
blood spilt," he said, adding that more than 40 000 people were expected
at the planned meeting on Sunday in the historic central city of Kairouan.
The government had banned the gathering because organisers
did not get permission from the authorities as required by law, Rached
Ghannouchi, the leader of ruling Islamist party Ennahda, said on Wednesday.
"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
The interior ministry requires that political parties and
associations obtain permission for all public activity.
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.
In recent months the government has hardened its stance
towards the Salafists, who are blamed for waves of violence across the country
since the January 2011 revolution which Ennahda has been strongly criticised
for failing to prevent.
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 uprising that ousted former dictator
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 an attack on the US embassy last September that left four