TUNIS – Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed Tunisia’s national museum on Wednesday, killing at least 18 foreign tourists and three Tunisians in one of the worst militant attacks in a country that had largely escaped the region’s Arab Spring turmoil.
Prime Minister Habib Essid initially said five Japanese as well as visitors from Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain were among the dead in the noon assault on Bardo National Museum inside the heavily guarded parliament compound in central Tunis.
Scores of visitors fled into the museum and the militants, whom authorities did not immediately identify, took hostages inside, officials said.
Security forces entered around two hours later, killed two militants and freed the captives, a government spokesman said. A police officer died in the operation.
The attack on such a high-profile target is a blow for the small North African country, which relies heavily on European tourism and has mostly avoided major militant violence since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Several Islamist militant groups have emerged in Tunisia since the uprising, and authorities estimate about 3,000 Tunisians have also joined fighters in Iraq and Syria — raising fears they could return and mount attacks at home.
“All Tunisians should be united after this attack, which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy,” Essid declared in a national address.Two German tour operators said they were canceling trips from Tunisia’s beach resorts to Tunis for a few days. Accor, Europe’s largest hotel group, said it had tightened security at its two hotels in Tunisia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington condemned the attack and continued “to support the Tunisian government’s efforts to advance a secure, prosperous, and democratic Tunisia.”
Television footage showed dozens of people, including elderly foreigners and one man carrying a child, running for shelter in the museum compound, covered by security forces aiming rifles into the air.
State television said 17 tourists were killed. Among the dead were three Italians, two Colombians and two Spaniards, the governments of their respective countries said.
Tunisian officials said 24 foreign tourists were wounded.
The museum is known for its collection of ancient Tunisian artifacts and mosaics and other treasures from classical Rome and Greece. There were no immediate reports that the attackers had copied the Islamic State group in Iraq by targeting exhibits seen by hard-line Islamists as idolatrous.
The museum’s white-walled halls set in the parliament compound are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Tunisian capital.
Shocked but defiant, hundreds of Tunisians later gathered in the streets of downtown Tunis waving the country’s red and white crescent flag, and chanting against terrorism.
“I pass this message to Tunisians, that democracy will win and it will survive,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a televised statement. “We will find more ways and equipment for the army to wipe out these barbarous groups for good.”
Tunisia’s uprising inspired Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Its adoption of a new constitution and staging of largely peaceful elections had won widespread praise and stood in stark contrast to the chaos that has plagued those countries.
After a crisis between secular leaders and the Islamist party which won the country’s first election, Tunisia has emerged as a model of compromise politics and transition to democracy for the region.
But security forces have clashed with some Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington, mostly in remote areas near the border with Algeria.
Affiliates of Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria have also been gaining ground in North Africa, especially in the chaotic environment of Libya, Tunisia’s neighbor, where two rival governments are battling for control.
Wednesday’s assault was the worst attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since an al-Qaida suicide bombing at a synagogue killed 21 people on the tourist island of Djerba in 2002.