ISTANBUL — Seventeen foreign tourists and two Tunisians were killed and several Europeans were wounded on Wednesday when gunmen targeted a renowned museum in the Tunisian capital next door to the country’s national parliament building, the country’s Prime Minister said.
Unconfirmed local reports say two Britons, one Frenchman, a German, an Italian, and one Spaniard are among the dead in Tunisia’s worst terrorist attack since an al Qaeda suicide bombing on a synagogue killed 21 on the tourist island of Djerba in 2002.
At least 22 tourists and two Tunisians were also injured, Prime Minister Habib Essid said in a televised news conference. Local reports suggest as many as 50 could have been wounded.
A Spanish tourist, Josep Lluis Cusido, the mayor of a small Spanish town, said the gunmen shot at anyone in the plaza outside the museum."After they entered the museum. I saw their faces: They were about 10 meters away from me, shooting at anything that moved,” Cusido told Spain's Cadena Ser radio station. He and his wife were trapped in the museum for three hours in the museum until they escaped.
Tunisian lawmakers were debating a new raft of anti-terrorism laws when a reported five gunmen in military-style clothing stormed the Bardo national museum, one of the North African country’s leading tourist attractions, killing and wounding as they took over the building.
Initially, Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told the Wataniya TV station that seven foreigners were killed in the assault. Poland’s foreign ministry said later that three Poles were among six tourists wounded in the assault. The Italian foreign ministry said that at least two Italians were wounded as well and a hundred managed to flee. Some came from an Italian cruise ship, the Costa Fascinosa, which docked in Tunis this morning.
But the numbers of dead rose dramatically, with Essid announcing the increased death toll. He also said security forces mounted a rescue operation freeing nearly a dozen tourists who had been taken hostage. Tunisian officials said two gunmen were killed, but it there were conflicting media reports as to whether one or two gunmen had been detained and whether any more were at large.
“Our homeland is under threat,” the Prime Minister said. He later added, "We have not established the identity of the two terrorists... Reports are not final, these two terrorists could have been assisted by two or three other operatives."
Both of the gunmen killed were Tunisian, identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui. Islamic State—also known as ISIS and ISL—Twitter accounts praised the attack but have so far not taken any responsibility for the assault.
“I want the people of Tunisia to understand firstly and lastly that we are in a war with terror, and these savage minority groups will not frighten us,” said President Beji Caid Essebsi in an evening televised address. “The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated.”
As gunshots echoed close to Parliament, security forces quickly evacuated the country’s lawmakers. Bochra Belhaj, a member of the Tunisian parliament, told local television that lawmakers had been evacuated by the security services and none were hurt. “Thank God, we are all out, but not the hostages at the museum.”
The attack, targeting the country’s parliament and top museum, is a major blow to the government’s recent efforts to crack down on militants and to ensure Tunisia remains an Arab Spring success story rather than yet another national casualty of the 2011 uprisings that toppled dictatorships from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula.
Despite its apparent success in making the transition to a moderate democracy, Tunisia has contributed more jihadist fighters per capita to the conflict in Syria than anywhere else with authorities estimating that at least 3,000 Tunisians have joined either the Islamic State or al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Five hundred are believed to have returned to Tunisia in recent months. A Tunisian militant leader, Ahmed Rouissi, was recently killed in Libya where he had been fighting alongside an affiliate of the Islamic State, and fears have mounted that returnees could stage attacks on Tunisian soil.
Only yesterday Tunisian officials announced they had broken up terrorist cells arresting 22 militants accused of recruiting young Tunisians to fight in Libya. And the interior ministry also announced another 10 militants were arrested attempting to cross into neighboring Libya to join jihadist groups. “This terrorist network is collaborating with dangerous Tunisian terrorists active in Libya, and working to supervise training camps with their counterparts from different countries,” a statement by the Ministry of Interior said.
And last month Tunisian authorities said they had arrested 32 Islamist militants who were planning large attacks in the country. Since the 2011 ousting of dictator Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, Islamist militant groups have grown dramatically in the country, training in remote camps and maintaining close ties to extremists in neighboring Algeria and Libya. In 2012, militants from Tunisia’s Ansar al Sharia assassinated two secular politicians.
The rise of militancy in the country doesn’t seem to have been blunted by the existence of a moderate Islamist party, the Nahda, which is the second largest grouping in Tunisia’s parliament. High youth unemployment amid a flagging economy has aided recruitment by the militants, analysts say.
In a video posted online last December, three Tunisian volunteers with the Islamic State warned that the country would not be secure “as long as Tunisia is not governed by Islam.” One of the fighters in the video was Boubakr Hakim, who is wanted in connection with the 2013 assassination of a leftwing Tunisian politician, Chokri Belaid.
No group has so far claimed responsibility.