Tunisian authorities arrest, detain several in connection to museum attack

World Today

A Tunisian policeman stands guard inside the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 19, 2015, in the aftermath of an attack on foreign tourists at the museum. Tunisia’s president promised to wage a “merciless war against terrorism” after gunmen killed at least 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians in a daylight attack in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s presidency says security forces have arrested 9 people in connection with the attack on the national museum that killed 23 people, mostly foreign tourists. The Islamic State group on Thursday also issued a statement claiming responsibility for the deadly attack.

Their ISIL statement described the attack as a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia,” and appeared on a forum that carries messages from the group. The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group also announced that IS had claimed Wednesday’s attack.

The Tunisian government said that five of those arrested were directly connected to the operation, which involved two gunmen attacking the museum. Four others were linked to the attackers and were based outside the capital.

The statement described the attackers as a “cell” but did not give any further information if they were part of a larger group.

One of the gunmen who killed tourists and others at a prominent Tunisian museum was known to intelligence services, but no formal links to a particular extremist group have been established, the prime minister said Thursday.

The attack Wednesday on Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum left 23 dead, scores wounded and threatens both Tunisia’s fledgling democracy and its struggling tourism industry. It was the worst attack at a tourist site in Tunisia in years, and a leading cruise line announced it is now canceling its Tunisian stops.

Razor wire ringed the museum Thursday and security forces guarded major thoroughfares in Tunis, the capital, as authorities hunted for two or three more people believed to have been involved in the attack.

Wednesday’s two attackers burst from a vehicle wielding assault rifles and began gunning down tourists climbing out of buses. The attackers then charged inside to take hostages before being killed in a firefight with security forces.

A Spanish man and a pregnant Spanish woman who survived hid in the museum all night in fear and were retrieved safely Thursday morning by security forces, Tunisia’s health minister told The Associated Press. Spain’s foreign minister said police searched all night for the pair, Juan Carlos Sanchez and Cristina Rubio.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid, in an interview with France’s RTL radio, said Tunisia was working with other countries to learn more about the attackers, identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui. They were killed by security services in a raid.

He said Laabidi had been flagged to intelligence, although not for “anything special.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Tunisia has faced scattered extremist violence, and a disproportionately large number of Tunisians have joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The attack spells oceans of trouble for the tourism industry, which brings throngs of foreigners every year to Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, desert oases and ancient Roman ruins — and which had just started to recover after years of slump. Two major cruise ships whose passengers had been among the victims left the port of Tunis early Thursday.

Health Minister Said Aidi said the death toll rose Thursday to 23 people, including 18 foreign tourists, with almost 50 people wounded. Five Tunisians were killed, including two attackers. Aidi said all the injuries came from bullet wounds, and that several victims were brought in without identity documents.

Moncef Hamdoun, an official with the Charles Nicolle hospital where many victims were taken, said seven of the dead remain unidentified. He listed the dead as three Japanese women, a Spanish man and a Spanish woman, a Colombian woman, an Australian man, a British woman, a Belgian woman, a Frenchman and a Polish man.

The Spanish couple was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and it was the first time they had travelled outside Spain, the Spanish foreign minister told reporters. Their two children were flying to Tunis along with a terror attack counselor to retrieve their parents’ bodies.

One victim, identified in Japanese media as 66-year-old Machiyo Narusawa, was among a group of 70 Japanese tourists who traveled from Tokyo. Travel agency Cruise Planet said many on the tour are retired couples.

A Tunisian translator for Polish tourists, Abdelwaheb Khedimi, told TVN24 that he was standing across the street from the museum gate when he saw two men run through the gate, produce automatic weapons and start firing in the direction of some 10 tour buses in the museum’s parking lot.

“It was a total shock,” Khedimi said.

A Polish military plane arrived in Tunis on Thursday morning to bring back Polish tourists who want to return home. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said some people from Poland are still missing, and Polish prosecutors say they will open their own investigation into the attack

Costa Crociere cruise line announced Thursday it has decided to cancel all its upcoming stops in Tunisian ports following the attack at the Bardo. The cruises will find alternate ports of call, which are still being defined.

“The security of our guests and crew is Costa Crociere’s priority and a necessary condition for calm and pleasant vacations,” the company said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Twitter accounts associated with the group praised the attack. Ifriqiyah Media, which has aired claims from Tunisian extremists in the past, posted what it said were details about the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online. The post does not say who orchestrated the attack.

Tunisian legislator Bochra Belhaj Hmida, of the secular majority party Nida Tunis, told the AP that about 2,000 suspected terrorists are believed to be in Tunisia, many of whom joined extremists in Iraq or Syria then returned home.

“They are in a situation of being lone wolves, where each of them is free to do the actions they want,” she said. “These are people who are let loose with weapons and wherever they can strike, they will not forgo the opportunity.”

Tunisians overthrew their dictator in 2011 and kicked off the Arab Spring that spread across the region. While the uprising built a new democracy, the country has also struggled with economic problems and extremism, though violence has not targeted tourist sites.

“This new act of barbarity sounds an alarm,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. “It announces that the world has changed.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday that the Chinese government strongly condemned Wednesday’s terrorist attack.

“China firmly opposes terrorism in any form and condemns all terror attacks targeting innocent people. We sent our condolences to the victims and sympathy to the Tunisian government workers injured in the attack,” Hong said. “China advocates that all countries in the world further enhance cooperation in fighting terror threats based on the purpose and principles of the United Nations Charter and other basic principles of recognized international ties.”

Here is a partial list of the victims who have been identified so far:

AUSTRALIA: Javier Camelo, 28. Camelo worked for American Express in Sydney, his employer said in a statement. He had recently finished an MBA degree in Madrid and travelled to Tunisia with his parents and a brother to celebrate his graduation, according to press reports in Colombia, where Camelo was born. Camelo’s mother was also killed in the attack. The family arrived on the cruise ship MSC Splendida.

BRITAIN: Sally Jane Adey, 57. Adey was also a passenger of the cruise ship MSC Splendida. She “was a much-loved daughter, wife and mother,” family friend Julia Holden said in a statement. According to Adey’s profile on website Beemee, she was a lawyer with children in university. She listed her interests as “family, cooking, flowers, history, watching sport with my husband — golf, rugby, cricket, motor racing and weekends away with friends.”

COLOMBIA: Miriam Martinez, the mother of Javier Camelo. Her husband, retired Colombian army general Jose Arturo Camelo, said he survived by a miracle. “These are things you never anticipate,” Camelo told The Associated Press. “I’m in a very bad state.”

FRANCE: Jean-Claude Tissier, 72. Tissier was a retired former local council member in the southern French town of Aussillon, the town hall confirmed. His companion Nadine Flament is among those still unaccounted for, according to town officials.

Francesco Caldara, 64. Caldara was from Novara in northern Italy, state-owned broadcaster RAI reported. Caldara’s companion Sonia Reddi was wounded in the attack, according to RAI.

Orazio Conte. The Turin resident was killed and his wife Carolina Bottari is hospitalized, their son, Marco Conte, told RAI.

Machiyo Narusawa, 66, was from Tokyo. She had come to Tunisia on a cruise with a companion, whose identity wasn’t released, according to Japanese news agency Kyodo.

Chiemi Miyazaki, 49, and Haruka Miyazaki, 22. The mother and daughter from Saitama near Tokyo had also come to Tunisia on a cruise, according to Kyodo.

SPAIN: Antonio Cirera Perez, 75, and Dolors Sanchez Rami, 73. The husband and wife from Barcelona were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise offered to them by their family, the Spanish government said.

Story compiled with information from AP reports.