Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed a museum in Tunisia’s capital on Wednesday, killing 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians, after failing to launch an assault on the parliament as lawmakers were debating an anti-terrorism bill.
Five Japanese as well as visitors from Italy, Poland and Spain were among the dead in the noon assault on Bardo Museum inside the heavily guarded parliament compound in central Tunis, Reuters reported, citing Prime Minister Habib Essid.
The rare attack cast a pall over one of the Arab Spring’s few success stories, the Wall Street Journal said.
The small North African nation, which relies heavily on European tourism, has mostly avoided major militant violence since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
“They just started opening fire on the tourists as they were getting out of the buses … I couldn’t see anything except blood and the dead,” the driver of a tourist coach told reporters at the scene.
Scores of visitors fled into the museum and the militants took hostages inside, Reuters said. Security forces entered around two hours later, killed two militants and freed the captives, according to a government spokesman. A police officer died in the operation.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but the interior ministry has said Tunisia accounts for some 3,000 of the foreign fighters who have joined radical groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, igniting fears they could return and mount attacks at home.
“All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy,” Essid said in a national address.
The local stock exchange dropped nearly 2.5 percent and two German tour operators said they were canceling trips from Tunisia’s beach resorts to Tunis for a few days.
Accor, Europe’s largest hotel group, said it had tightened security at its two hotels in Tunisia.
The museum is known for its collection of ancient Tunisian artifacts and mosaics and other treasures from classical Rome and Greece. There were no immediate reports that the attackers had copied Islamic State militants in Iraq by targeting exhibits seen by hardliners as idolatrous.
Shocked but defiant, hundreds of Tunisians later gathered in the streets of downtown Tunis waving the country’s red and white crescent flag, and chanting against terrorism.
“I pass this message to Tunisians, that democracy will win and it will survive,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a television statement. “We will find more ways and equipment for the army to wipe out these barbarous groups for good.”
Tunisia’s uprising inspired “Arab Spring” revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But its adoption of a new constitution and staging of largely peaceful elections had won widespread praise and stood in stark contrast to the chaos that has plagued those countries.
But the attack comes at a challenging time with Tunisia planning to reform its economy and cutback on public spending. Tourism represents around 7 percent of the gross domestic product.
The Tunisian premier said 17 tourists were killed, including four Italians, a French citizen, a Pole, two Colombians, five Japanese, an Australian and two Spaniards. He had previously mentioned a German fatality, but did not mention that in later statements.
Security forces have already clashed with some Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington. But until Wednesday most attacks were in remote areas, often near the border with Algeria.
– Contact us at [email protected]