Australian among 17 tourists killed in attack on museum in Tunisia

TunisiaHassene Dridi/APTourists and visitors from the Bardo museum are evacuated in Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in Tunis, Tunisia

At least 19 people, including 17 tourists and two gunmen, are dead after gunmen opened fire Wednesday at a leading museum in Tunisia’s capital, Prime Minister Habib Essid said in a statement.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop released a joint statement today confirming the death of a dual Australian-Colombian citizen.

“Our consular officials have now confirmed that a dual Australian-Colombian citizen, who was a resident of New South Wales, was among the deceased,” the statement said.

Early reports from Private radio station Radio Mosaique said two or three gunmen wearing military-style clothing had stormed the museum weilding grenade and assault rifles.

Two were reportedly killed by security forces in an operation to retake the museum, according to the New York Times, but more attackers may have escaped.

The gunmen had apparently been holding 10 Italian and Asian tourists hostage.

It was the first attack on a tourist site in years in Tunisia, a shaky young democracy that has struggled to keep Islamic extremist violence at bay.

Security forces filled the area around the National Bardo Museum after the attack. Tunisia’s parliament building, near the museum, was being evacuated, according to a tweet by parliament member Sayida Ounissi.

Private television Wataniya showed masked Tunisian security forces escorting dozens of tourists up nearby steps and away from the danger, as armed security forces pointed guns toward an adjacent building. Many elderly people, apparently tourists, ran in panic to safety, including at least one couple carrying two children.

TunisiaHassene Dridi/APA victim is being evacuated by rescue workers outside the Bardo museum in Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in Tunis, Tunisia.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said 21 people were killed: 17 tourists, two gunmen, a Tunisian security officer and a Tunisian cleaning woman. He said the dead tourists came from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain.

He said two or three of the attackers remained at large.

Several other people were reported wounded in the attack, including three Poles and at least two Italians. The Italian Foreign Ministry said 100 other Italians had been taken to a secure location.

Some of the Italians at the museum were believed to have been passengers aboard the Costa Fascinosa, a cruise liner making a seven-day trip of the western Mediterranean that had docked in Tunis. Ship owner Costa Crociere confirmed that some of its 3,161 passengers were visiting the capital Wednesday and that a Bardo tour was on the itinerary, but said it couldn’t confirm how many passengers were in the museum at the time.

The cruise ship recalled all the passengers to the ship and was in touch with local authorities and the Italian Foreign Ministry.

TunisiaHassene Dridi/APA member of security forces runs outside the Bardo museum in Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in Tunis, Tunisia after gunmen opened fire at the leading museum in Tunisia’s capital.

Wednesday’s attack was a strong blow to Tunisia’s efforts to revive its crucial tourism industry.

The National Bardo Museum, built in a 15th-century palace, is the largest museum in Tunisia and houses one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics among its 8,000 works. The museum is near the North African nation’s parliament, 4 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the city center. A new wing with contemporary architecture was built as part of a 2009 renovation, doubling the surface area.

“It is not by chance that today’s terrorism affects a country that represents hope for the Arab world. The hope for peace, the hope for stability, the hope for democracy. This hope must live,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement minutes after the crisis ended.

Speaking at the Louvre museum to call for international efforts to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria against extremist destruction, French President Francois Hollande said he had called the Tunisian president to offer support and solidarity.

TunisiaZoubeir Souissi /ReutersPolice officers crouch on the pavement outside parliament in Tunis March 18, 2015.

“Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,” Hollande said.

Tunisia recently completed a rocky road to democracy after overthrowing its authoritarian president in 2011, seen by many as the start of the so-called Arab Spring. The country has been more stable than other countries in the region, but has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists in recent years, including some linked to the Islamic State group. It also has extremists linked to al-Qaida’s North Africa arm who occasionally target Tunisian security forces.

A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits – some 3,000, according to government estimates – have joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.

TunisiaZoubeir Souissi/ReutersPolice officers are seen outside parliament in Tunis March 18, 2015.

The American Embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012, seriously damaging the embassy grounds and an adjoining American school. Four of the assailants were killed. Overall, though, the violence that Tunisia has seen in recent years has been largely focused on security forces, not foreigners or tourist sites.

The attack comes the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighbouring Libya of a leading suspect in Tunisian terror attacks and in the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.

Ahmed Rouissi gained the nickname of the “black box of terrorism.” The information on his death was made public by security officials giving testimony in parliament and cited by the official TAP news agency.

Libya, which has devolved into chaos, is a source of major concern for Tunisia.

Also a major worry is the Mount Chaambi area on the border with Algeria where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has reportedly been helping a Tunisian group which has killed numerous soldiers.

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