20 Tourists Killed as Militants Attack Tunisian Museum

Tunis
Police officers are seen outside parliament in Tunis March 18, 2015. Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

At least 23 people including 20 foreign tourists have been killed in a terror attack on Tunisia’s Bardo national museum, which sits in the grounds of the Tunisian parliament, by unidentified gunmen this morning, the Tunisian health minister has confirmed.

Tunisia’s prime minister Habib Essid told a press conference that Italian, Polish, German and Spanish tourists were among the killed tourists in the attack in the capital, Tunis. One British national was among the fatalities, as well as Colombian and Japanese nationals. Three Tunisian nationals were also killed in the attack.

Essid added that up to five militants may have been involved in the attack, including two which were killed in a security operation on the museum.

"Two were engaged in the operation and were killed. As I speak, our reports are not final. These two could have been assisted by two or three other operatives," he said. Security forces are continuing their operation in the city, searching for more suspects linked to the attack, he confirmed.

Although no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini blamed the attack on ISIS.

"With the attack that has struck Tunis today, the Daesh [Arabic term for ISIS] terrorist organization is once again targeting the countries and peoples of the Mediterranean region," she said in a statement.

"This strengthens our determination to cooperate more closely with our partners to confront the terrorist threat," she said. "The EU is determined to mobilize all the tools it has to fully support Tunisia in the fight against terrorism and reforming the security sector."

A Tunisian government official confirmed to Reuters that a policeman was also killed in the security operation which successfully freed all of the remaining hostages being held by the gunmen in the museum. Tunisian radio reports also claimed that two people had been arrested in the operation.

Spokesman for the ministry of interior, Mohamed Ali Aroui, confirmed that the gunmen who attacked the museum were dressed in military attire and were in the possession of Kalashnikovs. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

"A terrorist attack [targeted] the Bardo Museum," said Aroui, adding that “two or more terrorists armed with Kalashnikovs” were the perpetrators of the attack.

A Tunisian government official confirmed to Reuters that a policeman was also killed in the security operation which successfully freed all of the remaining hostages being held by the gunmen in the museum. Tunisian radio reports also claimed that two people had been arrested in the operation.

Local radio station Radio Mosaique had earlier reported that British, Italian, French and Spanish nationals were among those being held in the adjacent Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis.

The attack took place while Tunisian politicians discussed a new anti-terror law. A member of the Tunisian parliament told AFP that the parliament had been evacuated and all work inside the parliament had been suspended.

Aroui said security forces had surrounded the museum where two militants remained inside. Unverified pictures circulating on social media show up to 30 hostages inside the museum.

Tunis-based journalist, Med Dhia Hammami, reported that two explosions were heard at the scene, believed to be caused by militants throwing grenades.

Henry Wilkinson, head of intelligence and analysis at the geopolitical risk consultancy, the Risk Advisory Group, says that the terror threat in Tunisia “has been growing”.

“In 2014, the Ministry of the Interior announced that it had arrested a cell that was plotting attacks against tourist venues and politicians. So that is pretty consistent with the attack that we have seen today,” he notes.

“You have got the double effect where they are going after the government which they deem as illegitimate and they are going after tourism which is a very important economic underpinning for this sort of country.”

In figures released by the UK-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) earlier this year, it was revealed that up to 3,000 Tunisians had travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of radical extremist groups, the highest of any country in the world. The Tunisian government has expressed concerns about returning jihadis and the threat they pose to national security.

Tunisia served as the spark for the Arab Spring revolts four years ago when Tunisians took to the country’s streets to demand the overthrow of autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

An eyewitness in Tunis said: “It has just been chaotic here. In terms of responsibility, I am hearing the word ‘Daesh’ [another term for ISIS] a bit. However, it could really be anyone. If it is ISIS, it would be huge news. This is Tunis and this just doesn’t happen in Tunis. It is hugely significant that it happened right here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the gunmen attacked the parliament building. They in fact attacked the national museum, which sits adjacent to the parliament building.