By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) —
Attackers opened fire Wednesday at a major museum
in Tunisia's capital, gunning down 17 tourists as dozens more sprinted
to safety. At least 21 people in all were killed, including two gunmen,
but some attackers may have escaped, authorities said.
The attack on the famed National Bardo Museum in Tunis was the first on a
tourist site in years in Tunisia, a shaky young democracy that has
struggled to keep Islamic extremist violence at bay.
It wasn't clear who the attackers were but security forces immediately
flooded the area. Tunisia's parliament building, next to the museum, was
Private television Wataniya showed masked Tunisian security forces
escorting dozens of tourists up nearby steps and away from the danger,
as armed security forces pointed guns toward an adjacent building. Many
elderly people, apparently tourists, ran in panic to safety, including
at least one couple carrying two children.
Prime Minister Habib Essid said 21 people were killed: 17 tourists, two
gunmen, a Tunisian security officer and a Tunisian cleaning woman. He
said the dead tourists came from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain.
He said two or three of the attackers remained at large.
Several other people were reported wounded in the attack, including
three Poles and at least two Italians. The Italian Foreign Ministry said
100 other Italians had been taken to a secure location.
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 Wednesday and that a Bardo tour was on the itinerary, but said
it couldn't confirm how many 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.
Wednesday's attack was a strong blow to Tunisia's efforts to revive its crucial tourism industry.
The National Bardo Museum, built in a 15th-century palace, is the
largest museum in Tunisia and houses one of the world's largest
collections of Roman mosaics among its 8,000 works. The museum is near
the North African nation's parliament, 4 kilometers (2 ½bd} miles) from
the city center. A new wing with contemporary architecture was built as
part of a 2009 renovation, doubling the surface area.
"It is not by chance that today's terrorism affects a country that
represents hope for the Arab world. The hope for peace, the hope for
stability, the hope for democracy. This hope must live," French Foreign
Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement minutes after the crisis
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," Hollande said.
recently completed a rocky road to democracy after overthrowing its
authoritarian president in 2011, seen by many as the start of the
so-called Arab Spring. The country has been more stable than other
countries in the region, but has struggled with violence by Islamic
extremists in recent years, including some linked to the Islamic State
group. It also has extremists linked to al-Qaida's North Africa arm who
occasionally target Tunisian security forces.
A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits — some 3,000,
according to government estimates — have joined Islamic State fighters
in Syria and Iraq.
The American Embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012, seriously
damaging the embassy grounds and an adjoining American school. Four of
the assailants were killed. Overall, though, the violence that Tunisia
has seen in recent years has been largely focused on security forces,
not foreigners or tourist sites.
The attack comes the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the
death in neighboring Libya of a leading suspect in Tunisian terror
attacks and in 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
testimony in parliament and cited by the official TAP news agency.
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.
Elaine Ganley and Jamey Keaten in Paris, Nicole Winfield in Rome, and
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.