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Tunisia museum attack leaves 19 people, two terrorists dead

Tunis, March 19  At least 19 people, including 17 tourists, were killed and over 20 others injured when gunmen attacked a museum in Tunisia’s parliament complex here on Wednesday, according to media reports. Two of the terrorists were later killed.

Five “terrorists” carried out the attack on Bardo Museum, and two of them were killed by security forces, Prime Minister Habib Essid said at a press conference, according to Xinhua news agency.

A Tunisian citizen and a policeman were also killed in the attack, while at least 22 tourists and two Tunisians were injured, the prime minister added.

“It is a critical moment in our history, and a defining moment for our future,” he said, according to a BBC report.

“We have not established the identity of the two terrorists,” he said, adding that the two terrorists “could have been assisted by two or three other operatives”.

Security operations were still underway, with forces continuing to comb the area to find out the remaining operatives, if any, according to the reports.

Essid said about 100 tourists were inside the museum when it was attacked.

BBC cited Essid as saying that Italian, Spanish and German citizens were among those killed.

At the time of the attack, deputies in the neighbouring parliamentary building were discussing an anti-terrorism legislation, the BBC report said.

British, Italian, French and Spanish nationals were among those taken hostage during the attack, local radio reported.

Essid said the attack targeted the country’s economy, and that the struggle against terrorism was a “long battle to fight”, according to a Guardian report.

He praised the Tunisian armed forces and called on all political parties, civil society and state institutions to come together to fight terrorism.

According to an earlier report, a group of militants disguised as soldiers entered the Bardo museum through the parliament building.

Gunshots were heard on Wednesday morning near the parliament complex, which was immediately evacuated.

Ambulances removed people from the museum as helicopters flew overhead, CNN reported.

Mohamed Ali Aroui, an interior ministry spokesman, called the attackers Islamists on national radio, according to the CNN report.

Bardo Museum is the biggest Tunisian museum and a major tourist attraction.

The museum is housed in a 19th century palace and describes itself as “a jewel of Tunisian heritage”. Its exhibits Tunisian art, culture and history.

The museum is significant for its location — in the heart of Tunis and physically linked to parliament.

The fact that there was a significant number of foreign tourists at the museum during the attack was not surprising, given the museum’s prominence and the fact that at least two cruise ships, including the MSC Splendida and Costa Fascinosa, were docked in Tunis at the time.

The Costa Fascinosa alone had more than 3,000 passengers, its parent company Costa Cruises said in a news release.

World leaders joined the chorus to condemn the deadly attack.

“Attack in Tunisia is appalling (and) condemnable. We stand firmly with the people of Tunisia in this hour of grief (and) pray normalcy returns soon,” tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“My deepest sympathies to families of victims of Bardo museum attacks. EU stands united w #Tunisia against extremism,” tweeted Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tunisia was targeted because it represented hope.

“Attack in #Tunisia: Today #terrorism has struck — and this is not by chance — a country that represents hope in the Arab world @LaurentFabius,” tweeted the French ministry of foreign affairs and international development.

“I was shocked to learn of the attacks in #Tunis. France stands in solidarity w/ victims’ families & #Tunisian people,” the French embassy in the US, in a tweet, quoted Fabius as saying.

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring — anti-government protests that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa and sparked revolutions in some of those countries — took root in December 2010.

Tunisia has not had anywhere near the same level of violence as other nations in the region that were part of the Arab Spring uprising, like neighbouring Libya, but it has not been immune to it either, according to a CNN report.

The attack is a huge blow for Tunisia’s tourism industry and its government, which only emerged at the end of a long political transition several months ago, BBC said.

Islamist militants have tried to derail the democratic transition, which, although fragile, remains the most positive result of the Arab Spring, BBC added.

Tourism is a key sector of Tunisia’s economy, with large numbers of Europeans visiting the country.

In 2002, 19 people, including 11 German tourists, were killed in a bomb blast at a synagogue in the resort of Djerba. Al Qaeda said it had carried out that attack.

Concerns about security in Tunisia have increased as the neighbouring Libya has become increasingly unstable.

Up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria, more than other country, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in London, CNN said.

This has triggered worries that the returning militants could carry out attacks in Tunisia.