Tunisia’s president promised to wage a “merciless war against terrorism” after gunmen killed 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians in a daylight attack in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
As the international community denounced yesterday’s assault on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, which also left more than 40 people wounded, President Beij Caid Essebsi vowed Tunisia would fight “to our last breath”.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” said Essebsi, who visited some of the dozens being treated for wounds in a Tunis hospital.
“We will fight them without mercy to our last breath.”
The gunmen, dressed in military uniforms, opened fire on the tourists – including visitors from Italy, France, Australia, Colombia, Poland and Spain as they got off a bus then chased them inside the museum, said Prime Minister Habib Essid.
A Japanese survivor described how she and her mother were shot in the hail of bullets.
“I was crouching down with my arms over my head, but I was shot in the ear, hand and neck,” 35-year-old Noriko Yuki said from her hospital bed in comments aired by Japanese broadcaster NHK.
“My mother beside me was shot in the neck. Mother couldn’t move by herself when the police came over,” she added.
Among the dead were five Japanese, four Italians, two Colombians and one each from Australia, France, Poland and Spain, Essid announced on television.
The nationality of a 16th victim was not given, while the identity of the final fatality had not yet been established.
The Colombian tourists were a mother and child visiting Tunisia on a family holiday, their government said.
Police killed two gunmen and the authorities were still hunting for possible accomplices, said the prime minister.
A Tunisian bus driver and a policeman were also reported dead in the attack on the Bardo, famed for its collection of ancient artifacts.
The government announced more than 40 people were wounded, with Health Minister Said Aidi saying they included citizens of France, South Africa, Poland, Italy and Japan.
The attack appeared to be the worst on foreigners in Tunisia since an al Qaeda suicide bombing of a synagogue killed 21 people on the island of Djerba in 2002.
Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told reporters “two or more terrorists armed with Kalashnikovs” had targeted the museum, where about 100 tourists had been inside.
“Anti-terrorist units” had entered the museum and, about four hours after the incident began, declared that “the operation is over”.
Museum employee Dhouha Belhaj Alaya said she heard “intense gunfire” around noon.
“My co-workers were screaming ‘Run! Run! Shots are being fired!’” she told AFP. “We escaped out the back door with co-workers and some tourists.”
French tourist Fabienne recounted how she and others hid in one of the museum’s galleries along with their guide.
“We couldn’t see anything, but there must have been a lot of them. We were afraid that, at any moment, they would come kill us,” she told France’s BFM television.
Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamist extremism since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring and has taken pride in forming a democratic government and achieving stability – in marked contrast to neighbours such as Egypt and Libya.
It is hoping to rebuild its once-burgeoning tourism industry, which is struggling to recover from the effects of the revolution.