Gunmen stormed Tunisia’s national museum killing 20 foreign tourists and two Tunisians on Wednesday in an attack that raised fears for a rare success story of the Arab Spring.
The brazen daytime assault sparked panic at the nearby parliament and the National Bardo Museum, an iconic attraction in a country whose economy depends greatly on tourism.
“There are 22 dead including 20 South African, French, Polish and Italian tourists,” interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told AFP, without providing further details on their identities.
Prime Minister Habib Essid earlier said 17 foreigners had been killed, including Poles, Italians, Germans and Spaniards.
He said the two gunmen had been killed in a police assault and authorities were hunting for possible accomplices.
A Tunisian citizen and a policeman were also reported dead in the attack on the Bardo, famed for its collection of ancient artefacts.
Essid said the gunmen, dressed in military uniforms, opened fire on the tourists as they got off a bus and chased them inside the museum.
Aroui said 42 people were also wounded, with Health Minister Said Aidi saying they included citizens of France, South Africa, Poland, Italy and Japan.
President Beji Caid Essebsi denounced the killings as a “horrible crime” and said steps were being taken to prevent any further attacks.
“The authorities have taken all measures to ensure that such things don’t happen” again, Essebsi told AFP as he visited victims in a Tunis hospital.
The attack appeared to be the worst on foreigners in Tunisia since an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a synagogue killed 14 Germans, two French and five Tunisians on the island of Djerba in 2002. It drew widespread condemnation.
President Francois Hollande expressed French “solidarity” with Tunisia and US Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “wanton violence”.
Washington “stands with the Tunisian people at this difficult time and continues to support the Tunisian government’s efforts to advance a secure, prosperous and democratic Tunisia,” Kerry said in a statement.
Some officials, including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, said hostages were taken at the museum but this was not confirmed by Tunisian authorities.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has struggled to tackle a rise in attacks from Islamist extremists.
Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told reporters “two or more terrorists armed with Kalashnikovs” had targeted the museum. Aroui said about 100 tourists had been inside the museum when the attack occurred. He said “anti-terrorist units” had entered the museum and, about four hours after the incident began, declared that “the operation is over”.
“There is a possibility, but it is not certain, that (the two gunmen) could have been helped,” Essid said. “We are currently conducting extensive search operations to identify the two or three terrorists who possibly participated in the operation.”
Museum employee Dhouha Belhaj Alaya told AFP she heard “intense gunfire” around noon.
“My co-workers were screaming ‘Run! Run! Shots are being fired!'” she said. “We escaped out the back door with co-workers and some tourists.” Work was suspended at parliament during the attack.
Islamist lawmaker Monia Brahim told AFP gunfire from the initial assault prompted committees to suspend their meetings as lawmakers were ordered to assemble in the main chamber.
“There was enormous panic,” another lawmaker, Sayida Ounissi, wrote on Twitter, saying the attack took place during hearings on Tunisia’s anti-terrorism law.
At least four French citizens were among the wounded, a diplomatic source said.
Italy’s foreign ministry said at least two of its citizens had been wounded and about 100 were taken to safety by police during the attack.
A cruise ship carrying more than 3,100 passengers, the Costa Fascinosa, was docked in Tunis at the time, and some of those aboard had gone ashore planning to visit the museum, the cruise line said.
A statement did not specify if any passengers were inside the museum at the time of the attack.
But it said the ship’s departure was likely to be delayed and that a support team was headed from Genoa to work with passengers and local authorities.
Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamist extremism since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Dozens of police and military personnel have been killed or wounded in attacks blamed on Islamist militants.
An army offensive against the jihadists, who are linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been under way since 2012 but the ground and air campaign has failed to eliminate them.
The country is also fighting against the radicalisation of Muslim youth. Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and neighbouring Libya to fight in jihadist ranks, including with the Islamic State group.