TUNISIA - The Tunisian government on Friday banned hardline Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia from holding its annual congress at the weekend, saying it posed a threat to public order and setting the scene for a possible showdown.
"We have decided to prohibit this gathering, which would be in violation of the law and because of the threat it represents to public order," the interior ministry announced.
Earlier, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said Ansar al-Sharia, which does not recognise the authority of the state, had not submitted a request for authorisation to hold the meeting, planned for Sunday.
Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the moderate Islamist ruling party Ennahda, said this week that the government would not allow Ansar al-Sharia to hold its congress, ahead of the final ruling.
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 for any violence.
"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".
The interior ministry, in a statement, warned that "all those who defy the authority of the state and its institutions, who try to sow chaos, who incite violence and hatred will bear all the responsibility".
It also warned of a harsh response to "anyone who tries to attack the forces of order" and said the police and army are on "high alert to protect the security of citizens and their property".
The state is committed to "respecting the right to demonstrate peacefully, to safeguard freedom of expression, religious practice and peaceful preaching for all citizens in conformity with the laws in force," it added.
On Friday evening, Ansar al-Sharia urged its supporters to travel in groups, without calling off the event.
"We advise our brothers coming to Kairouan to travel in groups and not to be separated because the agents of the tyrant are blocking most intersections and provoking our brothers by showing their weapons," it said on its Facebook page.
Earlier, Ben Jeddou warned that the government would not tolerate unrest but charged that Ansar al-Islam was stirring trouble.
"We have special forces to protect Tunisia," he said.
"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."
With tensions rising, a US embassy travel advisory warned its citizens against travelling to Kairouan, saying "large rallies and demonstrations are possible" if the congress goes ahead.
"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 after the 2011 revolution that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Islamists have been blamed for a wave of violence across the country, including an attack on the American embassy in September that left four assailants dead.
The group's fugitive leader, Saif Allah Bin Hussein, a former Al-Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, warned last week he would wage war against the government, accusing it of policies in breach of Islam.
Bin Hussein, who goes by the name of Abu Iyadh, was jailed under Ben Ali but freed after the uprising. His movement has denied any connection with jihadists being hunted by the army in the border region with Algeria.