Gunmen kill at least 20 at museum in Tunisian capital

A victim is being evacuated by rescue workers outside the Bardo museum in Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in Tunis, Tunisia. Gunmen opened fire at a leading museum in Tunisia's capital, killing 19 people including 17 tourists, the Tunisian Prime Minister said. A later raid by security forces left two gunmen and one security officer dead but ended the standoff, Tunisian authorities said. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Gunmen opened fire Wednesday at a major museum in Tunisia’s capital, killing at least 20 people, mostly foreigners, in one of the worst attacks in this struggling North African democracy that depends heavily on tourism.

Men with assault rifles fired at tourists climbing from buses in front of the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis near the country’s parliament, sending dozens sprinting for safety. Two gunmen were killed, but Prime Minister Habib Essid said a manhunt was on for at two or three others.

TUNISIA ATTACKIt wasn’t clear who the attackers were but security forces immediately flooded the area. Tunisia’s parliament building, next to the museum, was evacuated.

The identity of the attackers wasn’t clear. 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.

About 50 people were wounded in the attack, which began after noon local time, according to Tunisian state television.

Security forces immediately flooded the area around the museum, and Tunisia’s parliament building, where deputies were debating a new anti-terrorism law, was evacuated.

Dozens of tourists scrambled from the museum holding hands or linking arms as Tunisian security forces pointed their guns toward an adjacent building. At least one couple carried two children.

According to Essid, the dead include two gunmen, a Tunisian security officer and a Tunisian cleaning woman, while the rest were tourists from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain. The Spanish Foreign Ministry has confirmed one dead.

Tunisia has been struggled to keep extremist violence at bay since the overthrow of its dictator in 2011, and the attack was the worst on a tourist site since an al-Qaida car bomb killed 21 people — mostly Germans — in 2002.

“Our nation is in danger,” Essid warned in an address on national television Wednesday evening after the siege ended.

“We will be merciless in the defense of our country,” he added, describing the attack as an unprecedented assault on Tunisia’s economy. He promised increased security in tourist zones and asked residents to be extra alert.

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.

The United States, France, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations denounced the bloodshed. 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.

The attack was a strong blow to Tunisia’s efforts to revive its crucial tourism industry.

Some of the Italians at the museum were believed to have been passengers aboard the Costa Fascinosa, a cruise liner that had docked in Tunis while on a seven-day tour of the western Mediterranean. 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 couldn’t confirm how many passengers were in the museum at the time.

The Bardo, 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, 4 kilometers (2 ½ miles) from the city center, has a new wing with contemporary architecture that was built as part of a 2009 renovation.

During the Roman Empire, Tunisia was called the province of Africa and was home to several large cities which are now popular ruins, including the great amphitheater of El Djem, the ruins of Sbeitla and in the north, Dougga, known by UNESCO as the “best preserved small town in North Africa.”

“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 ended.

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 Tunisia’s president to offer support and solidarity.

“Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,” Hollande said.

Tunisia 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 others in the region, but has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists who have sworn allegiance to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits — some 3,000, according to government estimates — have joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. 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, violence in Tunisia in recent years has been largely focused on security forces, not foreigners or tourist sites.

In October 2013, a young man blew himself up on a beach in the coastal town of Sousse after being chased from a hotel, causing many to expect a new wave of attacks on tourism. None materialized until now.

North Africa analyst Geoff Porter said an attack on a tourism site has long been expected as the militants come under pressure from increasingly effective Tunisian security forces.

“Today’s attack did not come out of nowhere. In fact, it comes amid ongoing counterterrorism efforts elsewhere in the country,” he said about the attack. “Increasing pressure on terrorist activities … may have squeezed the balloon, with terrorists seeking softer targets with more symbolic impact in the capital.”

The attack came the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighboring Libya of Ahmed Rouissi, leading suspect in Tunisian terror attacks and in the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.

Rouissi had become a field commander for the Islamic State in Libya and died fighting near the town of Sirte, highlighting how Libya has increasingly become a sanctuary for Tunisian radicals.

Tunisia has repeatedly expressed concern over the security threat from Libya, where central government has broken down since the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi and is now run by competing militias.

TIMELINE


7:35 p.m. (2035 GMT, 4:35 p.m. EDT)

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the U.S. is prepared to offer assistance to Tunisian authorities in their investigation of the attack against the Bardo museum and “will continue to stand with our Tunisian partners against terrorist violence.”

“We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims of today’s heinous violence in Tunisia and condemn in the strongest terms this terrorist attack, which took the lives of innocent Tunisians as well as visiting tourists,” Earnest said.

He said American officials are in touch with Tunisian authorities and that the U.S. is proud of its “robust cooperation with Tunisia on counterterrorism and broader security issues.”

Also, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed on Twitter that two Colombian citizens were among the victims of the attack.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the violence “a cowardly attack on us all.”

He said he “cannot rule out there being German citizens among the victims,” but couldn’t confirm that at this stage.

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6:45 p.m. (1945 GMT, 3:45 p.m. EDT)

An Italian Foreign Ministry official says three Italians were among those killed in the attack against a Tunisian museum that left at least 22 people dead.

The official in Rome spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to give his name.

He said another six Italians were injured in the attack.

Meanwhile, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a televised speech that Tunisia is in a war against “terror.”

“These savage minority groups will not frighten us and the fight against them will continue until they are exterminated,” he said.

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6:05 p.m. (1905 GMT, 3:05 p.m. EDT)

Spanish eyewitness Josep Lluis Cusido says he was inside the Bardo museum in Tunisia when the attack started that left at least 22 people dead and hid behind a pillar to save his life.

Cusido, the mayor of the small Spanish town of Vallmoll, told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio station he spent nearly three hours inside the museum with his wife until they got out uninjured.

“We saw a bunch of people leaving a vehicle and they started shooting everyone walking down the plaza at that moment,” he said. “After they entered the museum. I saw their faces: They were about 10 meters away from me, shooting at anything that moved.”

“I managed to hide behind a pillar, there were unlucky people who they killed right there. I was lying on the floor almost three hours but our lives were saved”, Cusido said.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said two Spaniards died in the attack, but none were wounded.

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7:30 p.m. (1830 GMT, 2:30 p.m. EDT)

An expert on extremism says that Twitter accounts linked to the Islamic State group are voicing elation at the attack on a Tunisian museum that left at least 22 people dead.

Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group said Wednesday on Twitter that Islamic State accounts are applauding the attack on the Bardo museum and putting out “calls for Tunisians to ‘follow their brothers.'”

SITE follows extremist and jihadi websites around the world, publishing translations of the latest announcements by various armed groups.

Gunmen stormed Tunis’ main museum killing at least 20 people in the worst attack on tourists in North Africa in more than a decade. Two gunmen were killed, but Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said a manhunt was on for two or three others.

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6:55 p.m. (1755 GMT, 1:55 p.m. EDT)

The United States, the United Nations, France and the UAE are among the nations condemning the attack on a top museum in Tunisia that left 22 people dead, including 17 tourists and 2 gunmen.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says “the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s deadly terrorist attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis” and offered his condolences to families of the victims.

Kerry, in a statement, also said the U.S. “commends Tunisian authorities’ rapid response to today’s wanton violence and their efforts to resolve the hostage situation and restore calm.”

The UAE’s foreign minister reaffirmed his nation’s support for Tunisia’s fight against terrorism and French President Francois Hollande called the Tunisian president to offer his support. Hollande says “each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned.”

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6:25 p.m. (1725 GMT; 1:25 p.m. EDT)

Poland’s prime minister has revealed that some of the Polish victims of Tunisia’s museum 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 Wednesday, 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.

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5:35 p.m. (1635 GMT; 12:35 p.m. EDT)

Tunisian state television says the death toll in an attack on a prominent museum has risen to 22, including several foreign tourists and two gunmen.

Authorities say assailants opened fire on the National Bordo Museum on Wednesday, killing tourists and a cleaning woman and wounding several others. Security forces later stormed the museum, killing two gunmen and a security officer. At least two or three other accomplices may be at large.

State television said Wednesday afternoon that the death toll had risen to 22 people, including the two attackers. The report, citing medical officials, did not give a breakdown of nationalities.

World leaders offered their support to Tunisia’s government. The prime minister promised extra security in tourist zones and asked residents to be extra alert.

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4:25 p.m. (1525 GMT; 11:25 a.m. EDT)

Tunisia’s prime minister says 21 people are dead after an attack on a major museum, including 17 foreign tourists — and that two or three of the attackers remain at large.

Habib Essid told national television that the foreigners included tourists from Poland, Italy, Germany and Spain.

He said that two of the attackers were killed in a gunfight with police on Wednesday, and that security forces are hunting for two or three others believed to have been involved.

The attack was the worst in years on a tourist site in Tunisia, which is struggling to solidify its young democracy and prevent violence by Islamic extremists.

Seventeen foreigners were killed, as were a Tunisian security officer and a cleaning woman, the interior ministry spokesman said.

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3:55 p.m. (1455 GMT; 10:55 a.m. EDT)

Italy’s Foreign Ministry says two Italians have been injured in an attack on a leading museum in Tunisia’s capital, and 100 Italians inside the museum have been taken to a secure location.

At least 11 people were killed in Wednesday’s attack and ensuing gunfight at the National Bardo Museum, including seven foreign tourists and the two gunmen, Tunisian authorities said.

Some of the Italians in 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 the 3,161 passengers were visiting the Tunisian capital Wednesday and that a tour of the Bardo was on the itinerary, but said it couldn’t confirm how many, if any, passengers were in the museum at the time. It said it had recalled all the passengers to the ship and was in touch with local authorities and the Italian Foreign Ministry.

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3:30 p.m. (1430 GMT; 10:30 a.m. EDT)

Tunisia’s Interior Ministry says two gunmen and a security officer have been killed in a raid on a major museum that left several tourists dead.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said on Radio Mosaique that the standoff is over after the raid Wednesday afternoon.

The two gunmen had opened fire on the National Bardo Museum earlier Wednesday. Authorities said at least eight people were killed, including seven foreign tourists, and six people were wounded. Several tourists remained holed up inside the museum before security forces surrounded and then stormed the building.

It was the worst attack on a tourist site in Tunisia in years, and comes as the country is trying to establish democracy and keep Islamic extremists at bay.

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1:30 p.m. (1230 GMT; 8:30 a.m. EDT)

A Tunisian official says eight people have been killed in a shooting attack on a leading museum.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said on Radio Mosaique that only one of the dead in Wednesday’s attack was a Tunisian. He did not provide nationalities for the others.

The National Bardo Museum is adjacent to the national parliament building, which was being evacuated after the shooting.

The museum is a leading tourist attraction that chronicles Tunisia’s history and houses one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics.

It is unclear who the attackers are. Tunisia has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists in recent years, including some linked to the Islamic State group.

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