France is dispatching a naval force toward North Africa in response to an emergency appeal for help from Tunisia, which was badly shaken last weekend by a rebel attack evidently launched from neighboring Libya.
Five French ships, including three surface vessels and two submarines, hurriedly left the French Meditarranean naval base at Toulon Sunday night. Officials said today that the ships would "show themselves" off the Tunisian coast and then presumably travel to scheduled maneuvers off Crete.
U.S. sources here said there had been "consultations" with the Tunisian government of President Habib Bourguiba but that the United States probably would offer no gestures of military support.
Tunisia recalled its ambassador to Tripoli and expelled Libya's ambassador.
In telephone interviews, Tunisian officals said that interrogation of guerrillas taken prisoner during an unsuccessful attack on the south-central city of Gafsa during the weekend indicated the rebels planned to establish a government there and appeal for Libyan intervention to topple Bourguiba.
Sources also reported gunfire in Gafsa today and pockets of ongoing rebel resistance. Forty-one persons were reported killed in the original attack -- four attackers, 20 soldiers, two policemen and 15 civilians.
In a speech to the ruling Destourian Socialist Party, Tunisian Premier Hedi Nouira in effect warned Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi that any further attempt to overthrow the Tunisian government would be met not only by the weak, 20,000-man Tunisian Army but also by the country's unnamed "friends," apparently meaning France and the United States.
"Tunisia has friends in the world, and they have poured it," Nouira said. "That friendship was shown concretely."
French officials said there would be no forces sent to Tunisia, since the Tunisian Army had handled the weekend attack itself Tunisia has 20 light tanks and 10 combat planes compared to Libya's 2,000 tanks and nearly 200 planes.
While the French Defense Ministry initially denied reports that the naval force was bound for Tunisian waters, Elysee Palace officials said the ships were to show the French flag off Tunisia on their way west.
"There's no point in having a Mediterranean fleet if it doesn't show itself once in a while," an official said. "If observers want to conclude that there is a connection with Tunisia, that doesn't bother us a bit."
French official sources compared the objectives of the raid on Gafsa early Sunday morning, in which military and police installations were attacked, to the recent armed takeover of Mecca in Saudi Arabia as similar attempts to discredit and undermine the governments involved. The French said a number of the participants in the operation infiltrated into Gafsa in advance and rose up to join those who came from outside.
But the official numbers issued by the Tunisian Interior Ministry today, while subject to some caution, seemed to indicate a smaller attack force than the initial report of 300. Interior Minister Othman Kechrid said the attackers numbered about 50 and 42 of them are being held in Tunis. The Army is still seeking guerrillas who escaped, Tunisian officials said privately. In addition to the dead, he said 90 soldiers and police and 16 civilians were wounded. The numbers reflected the heavy fighting and that the attackers had the advantage of surprise.
Premier Nouira said there was a "diabolic aggression was organized and planned by a neighbor state known to specialize in this kind of operation and for its lack of respect for the rules of good neighborliness."
Nouira also announced Tunisia is closing its cultural center in Libya and told the Libyans to shut their centers in Tunisia. A high-ranking Tunisian source said these were most probably only first steps.
Meanwhile in Rome, the "Tunisian Resistance Army," claimed responsibility for the Gafsa attack and said 250 Tunisian soldiers were killed.