TUNIS, Tunisia – Gunmen opened fire Wednesday at a major museum in Tunisia’s capital, killing eight people and wounding six others as dozens of foreign tourists sprinted to safety. A raid by security forces ended the standoff but left two gunmen and one security officer dead, authorities said.
The attack on the famed National Bardo Museum 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 immediately clear who the attackers were but security forces immediately flooded the area. Tunisia’s parliament building, next to the museum, was evacuated.
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.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told Radio Mosaique the standoff was over after the raid. He told Wataniya television that eight people were dead – seven foreign tourists and one Tunisian. He did not give nationalities for the foreign victims.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry announced that three Poles were among the wounded while the Italian Foreign Ministry said at least two Italians were wounded and 100 other Italians had been taken to a secure location.
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 its 3,161 passengers were visiting the 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.
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 kilometres (2 1/2 miles) from the city centre. 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 ended.
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 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 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 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.