Gunmen killed at least 19 people — including 17 foreign tourists — in an attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and their accomplices might still be at large, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.
Essid said that two terrorists were killed in an operation to end the assault but that up to three possible accomplices could be on the run.
Describing the attack as “cowardly,” Essid said at a news conference that the tourists were fired upon as they stepped off their bus to visit the museum near the North African nation’s parliament. He said Polish, Italian, German and Spanish citizens were among the dead.
French President Francois Hollande later the deaths of two French citizens. He also said that seven French nationals were injured and another remained in serious condition.
The attack is a blow for a country that relies heavily on tourism and has largely avoided major militant violence since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Efriqia Media, an independent pro-ISIS group that focuses on jihadist activities in Tunisia and Libya, identified the dead gunmen as Yaseen Al-Obaydi and Saber Al-Khashnawi. Laith Alkhouri, director of Middle East and North African research for Flashpoint, a global security firm and NBC News consultant, said Efriqia Media has previously released confirmed exclusive details and footage of jihadist operations.
Efriqia Media said the original plan of the gunmen, whom it called heroes, had been to target the Tunisian parliament, where the museum is located, and to kill everyone inside.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand once and for all that we are at war with the terrorists,” Essid said in a nationally televised address late Wednesday. “We will resist them to the last breath without pity or mercy.”
Tunisia’s uprising inspired “Arab Spring” revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But 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 post-revolt election, Tunisia has emerged as a model of compromise politics and transition to democracy for the region.
But the attack comes at a challenging time with Tunisia planning to reform its economy and cutback on public spending. Tourism represents around 7 percent of the gross domestic product.
Security forces have already clashed with some Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington. But until Wednesday most attacks were in remote areas, often near the border with Algeria.
Another group is holed up in the mountains along the Algerian border where the army has spent months trying to destroy their camps.
Affiliates of Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria have also been gaining ground in North Africa, especially in the chaotic environment of Tunisia’s neighbor Libya, where two rival governments are battling for control.
A senior Tunisian militant was killed while fighting for Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte over the past week. Security sources said he had been operating training camps and logistics.
“An attack like this could strike the fragile transition in Tunisia, especially the tourism industry,” said local political analyst Nourredine Mbarki. “The problem is now these groups have gone from being in mountains and borders to hit the capital and targets with high security.”
Yesterday’s assault was the worst attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since an al Qaeda suicide bombing on a synagogue killed 21 people on the tourist island of Djerba in 2002.
The most recent attack on the tourism industry in 2013 when a militant blew himself up at the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse, but no one else was killed or wounded. Another bomber was caught at a presidential monument before he blew himself up.