A terrorist attack which left seventeen tourists dead when two gunmen ‘hunted down’ foreigners, has been hailed as ‘a black day for Tunisia’.
All 17 innocent victims were foreigners who were deliberately targeted as they exited cruise ship buses by the museum in Tunis.
Two gunmen then entered the museum and took 30 more tourists hostage before police swarmed the building and killed the terrorists in a shoot-out which also claimed an officer’s life.
Twenty-two people were killed: 17 tourists, the two gunmen, a museum security officer, a cleaner, and a police officer. The dead tourists came from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain.
Tonight, thousands of people have gathered in the Capital in a show of solidarity against today’s atrocity as world leaders united in their condemnation.
David Cameron said he was ‘appalled’ by the incident and pledged Britain’s full support, while the Foreign Office said it is ‘urgently’ looking into the attack amid reports Britons may be among the dead.
Mr Cameron said on Twitter: ‘Appalled by sickening terrorist attack in Tunis–my thoughts are with those affected. UK stands ready to support Tunisia.’
Speaking from the Louvre, French president Francois Hollande said he had called Tunisia’s president to offer support and solidarity.
‘Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,’ he said.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington ‘condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s deadly terrorist attack’ and praised Tunisia’s ‘rapid response’ to resolve the hostage situation and restore calm.
Tunisian prime minister Habib Essid earlier warned there may be others, acting as accomplices to the gunmen, who remain at large.
Mr Essid said: ‘The terrorist fired randomly as they got off the buses. As they fled, they were hunted and chased down.
‘There is a possibility, but it is not certain, that [the two gunmen] could have been helped. We are currently conducting extensive search operations to identify the two or three terrorists who possibly participated in the operation.’
It is believed several hundred managed to flee the museum, while another 20–30 were taken captive before anti-terrorist security forces raided the building.
It is unclear who the attackers were, but a video posted online in December attributed to Islamic State warned the jihadis would target the country.
Twitter accounts associated with the extremist Islamic State group based in Syria and Iraq were described as overjoyed at the attack, urging Tunisians to ‘follow their brothers,’ according to Rita Katz of SITE, a U.S.-based organization that monitors militant groups.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said ‘terrorist organisations’ were behind the attack.
She added: ‘The EU is determined to mobilise all the tools it has to fully support Tunisia in the fight against terrorism.’
Prime Minister Essid declared, in what is thought to be reference to the country’s tourism industry: ‘All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy.’
This was backed by Karim Ben Sa’a, a manager in the tourism industry, who declared: ‘This is a black day for Tunisia.’
‘We are very sad for these tourists. They visit our country and it is so, so, sad to see them die. Our hearts are black.’
Mohamed Ali Aroui, an Interior Ministry spokesman, described the two attackers as ‘Islamists’ in local broadcasts, CNN reported.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, national guardsmen and anti-terrorist police quickly surrounded the hugely popular tourist site, which is visited by thousands of foreigners every year, including many Britons.
Fleets of ambulances could also be seen driving in and out of the museum grounds, as helicopters flew overhead.
The two heavily armed terrorists were holed-up inside with Kalashnikovs.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said on Radio Mosaique that one of the dead was a Tunisian.
Farouk Afi, a blogger in Tunisia, was about to meet his friend in the museum when he heard the shots go off, according to the BBC.
He said: ‘I was near, next door in the café, and I was going to meet with my friends. I heard it and I didn’t know at that moment what it was, but the police told me go far from this place.
The Foreign Office said it was still working to establish if any British nationals were involved and updated its travel advice for Tunisia.
A spokesman said: We are urgently looking into the serious events in Tunisia and are working with the Tunisian authorities as well as with contacts in the tourist industry to establish if any British nationals have been affected.
‘Through our travel advice, we are urging people to exercise caution and follow the instructions of the local authorities.’
British tour operators confirmed that thousands of customers are believed to be in the country, but ‘very few’ are in the capital where the attack was carried out.
A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said: ‘We are currently liaising with our members and the Foreign Office to assess the impact and understand if any British nationals have been caught up in the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis.
‘Tunisia attracts over 400,000 UK visitors each year, with the vast majority travelling to resorts on the coast.
‘Abta members have reported that they have currently approximately 6,500 customers in Tunisia, though very few of these are staying in Tunis. As a precaution many Abta tour operators have cancelled local excursions to Tunis due to depart over the next few days.’
Poland’s prime minister has now revealed that some of the Polish victims of the attack were on a tour bus in front of the building when the gunmen opened fire.
Ewa Kopacz refused to give the precise number of Polish victims, saying figures were still being confirmed. Earlier today, the Foreign Ministry said that three Poles were injured, while Polish diplomats in Tunis were working to confirm unofficial reports that four Poles had been killed.
Kopacz did say 20 Polish tourists are safe and sound.
And Piotr Henicz, deputy head of Polish tour company Itaka, said 36 tourists on a package holiday to Tunisia were visiting the museum when they came under attack.
The museum chronicles Tunisia’s history and includes one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics.
Tunisia recently completed a rocky road to democracy after overthrowing its authoritarian president in 2011.
It has been more stable than other countries in the region, but it has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists in recent years, including some linked to ISIS. It also has extremists linked to al-Qaeda’s North Africa arm who occasionally target Tunisian security forces.
A disproportionately large number of Tunisia recruits have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The museum, built within a 15th-century palace, is the largest museum in Tunisia with collections covering two floors.
The museum is near the North African country’s parliament, some four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) from the city centre. A new wing with contemporary architecture was built as part of a 2009 renovation, doubling the surface area. Some 8,000 works are displayed in the museum, according to the website.
The attack comes the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighbouring Libya of a leading suspect in Tunisian terror attacks and the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.
Ahmed Rouissi gained the nickname of the ‘black box of terrorism’. The information on his death was made public by security officials giving evidence in parliament and cited by the official TAP news agency
Some of the Italians at the museum were believed to have been passengers aboard the Costa Fascinosa, a cruise liner making a seven-day trip of the western Mediterranean that had docked in Tunis.
Ship owner Costa Crociere confirmed that some of its 3,161 passengers were visiting the capital and that a Bardo tour was on the itinerary, but said it could not confirm how many, if any, passengers were in the museum at the time.
The cruise ship recalled all the passengers to the ship and was in touch with local authorities and the Italian foreign ministry.
Libya, which has devolved into chaos, is a source of major concern for Tunisia.
Also a major worry is the Mount Chaambi area on the border with Algeria where al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has reportedly been helping a Tunisian group which has killed numerous soldiers.
Speaking at the Louvre museum to call for international efforts to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria against extremist destruction, French president Francois Hollande said he had called the Tunisian president to offer support and solidarity.
‘Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,’ said Mr Hollande.
French prime minister Manuel Valls said today: ‘We are condemning this terrorist attack in the strongest terms. We are standing by the Tunisian government.’