Islamic State militants were blamed on Wednesday night for a massacre of 20 foreign tourists at Tunisia’s national museum, in what was feared to be revenge for the killing of a leader of the terror group in neighbouring Libya.
A total of 22 people, including South African, French, Spanish, Polish and Italian holidaymakers, were killed when gunmen disguised as soldiers stormed the museum in the capital, Tunis.
Armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades, the terrorists sprayed gunfire at tourists getting off buses outside the museum and then charged inside. The Western tourists had apparently got off cruise ship buses and were deliberately targeted.
Other people in the Bardo museum fled the scene in terror while some were taken hostage inside.
The building was then surrounded by heavily-armed security forces. After a two-hour stand-off, they attacked the gunmen and killed two of them, freeing the captives. At least two of the gang escaped and were being hunted by police on Wednesday night.
A Tunisian tourist guide told how he had “stared death in the face” as the terrorists opened fire in the museum.
“They opened up on anything that moved,” said Walid, who only gave his first name.
“The choice was to run away, or face certain death or injury. I helped my clients find shelter as best I could,” he said, explaining that he knew where the nearest emergency exits were.
The random savagery of the attack bore all the hallmarks of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which set up its first North African cell last year in neighbouring Libya, vowing it to be a staging post for strikes on Europe.
As of Wednesday night, no group had issued a claim of responsibility. But speculation was growing that it was linked to the death of Ahmed al-Rouissi, Tunisia’s most-wanted terrorist, who had become a senior leader in Isil’s Libya group.
Accused by the Tunisian government for a string of terrorist attacks in his home country, he was killed last weekend in a clash with Libyan militiamen.
The slaughter at the museum was also seen as a deliberate attempt to destabilise Tunisia, which was the birthplace of the Arab Spring four years ago, and which has so far managed to avoid the turmoil that has engulfed other Arab Spring countries like Libya, Syria and Egypt.
It was also a body blow to the tiny country’s vital tourism sector, which attracts nearly half a million Britons every year.
“It is not by chance that today’s terrorism affects a country that represents hope for the Arab world,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, minutes after the crisis ended. “The hope for peace, the hope for stability, the hope for democracy. This hope must live.” As of Wednesday night, Tunisian police and military were still maintaining a heavy security on the streets of Tunis, a palm-lined city on the shores of the Mediterranean. Cordons were still thrown around the Bardo museum, where tourists had been admiring the collections of Phoenician period, Punic and Roman artefacts when the gunmen struck Wednesday lunchtime.
One French tourist, who was on a guided tour of the museum, gave a live account to French television as she sat holed up with 40 other holidaymakers in one of the museum’s exhibition rooms.
“We heard shots outside, several volleys,” she said. “We thought it was a party, but in fact it wasn’t – there were men on the floor. There are around 40 of us holed up in a room. We are rather panic-stricken. We could hear ‘Allah Akbar’ (the Arabic chant of ‘God is Great’) and lots of firing. Earlier there were shots inside the museum, now it’s outside.”
Edwigo Olesveski, 64, from Poland, was visiting the museum when the gunmen opened fire.
She believes she fainted from the shock of hearing the gunfire. She was then shot in the elbow as the gunmen sprayed bullets indiscriminately.
Speaking from her bed in the Charles Nicolle hospital in Tunis, she said: “I was leaving the museum with my tour group when I heard machine gunfire and fainted.” Her husband was shot in the leg. They and 14 other injured tourists were being treated for gunshot wounds on Wednesday night at the hospital.
There were Poles, Japanese, German, French and Italian tourists.
“Many of them are in surgery. They were shot in the arms, in the legs, and in the body,” said Souad Sedraoui, the director of the hospital, as foreign diplomats arrived in embassy cars to check the condition of their nationals.
“The oldest is 75. They are tired and traumatised but we think they are going to be OK.”
Mahjoub Zitouni, a doctor, said: “They all have trauma injuries, including abdominal wounds. We are treating many nationalities but there are no British victims in this hospital.”
There were reports that a Colombian tourist had lost both his wife and young child in the attack.
The museum, housed in a 15th century palace, is located just next to Tunisia’s main parliament building, which was initially thought to be the main target of the attack. It was evacuated shortly afterwards, while security forces then staged an operation to besiege the museum and allow as many visitors as possible to escape.
Television footage showed dozens of people, including elderly foreigners and one man carrying a child, running for shelter in the compound next to the parliament, covered by security forces aiming rifles into the air.
Fleets of ambulances drove in and out of the museum grounds, as helicopters flew overhead. Armoured green Humvee personnel carriers also surrounded the complex.
Habib Essid, Tunisia’s prime minister, on Wednesday night promised a merciless “war against terrorism”. “I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” he said. “We will fight them without mercy to our last breath.”
The Foreign Office said it was “urgently checking” as to whether any Britons had been killed or injured in the attack, but it was understood that none were in the museum at the time.
A nationwide manhunt was under way for other members of the cell that carried out the attack, the worst of its kind in Tunisia since 2002, when an al-Qaeda suicide bombing on a synagogue killed 14 Germans, two French and five Tunisians on the island of Djerba.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy head, said the attack was the work of Isil militants, but later withdrew the statement, saying it was simply “terrorist organisations”.
However, speculation in the Tunisian media pointed to the involvement of militants loyal to Rouissi, who was nicknamed Tunisia’s “black box of terrorism” after security forces found a laptop belonging to him that gave details of his group’s strategies. Prior to joining Isil, the 48-year-old is said to have been behind a string of bombings in Tunisia and also the assassinations in 2013 of two left-wing politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi.
He was reported to have been killed on Saturday in the Libyan city of Sirte, where Isil has established a foothold. His forces were said to have been in combat with fighters from Libya Dawn, a coalition of more moderate Islamists based in the city of Misurata, who are anxious not to let Isil become a rival for power.