17 tourists, 2 locals slain in Tunis museum attack

Twenty-one people, including foreign tourists and two gunmen, have been killed following a siege by armed militants at a museum in the capital, Tunis. World leaders have offered their support to Tunisia’s government.

Tunisia’s prime minister, Habib Essid, said that a total of 21 people have died in the attack against the Bardo museum, including 17 tourists, two Tunisians and two gunmen.

The foreigners include five Japanese victims, four Italian, two Colombian, two Spanish, one Australian, one Pole, one French national and one whose nationality has not yet been verified.

The prime minister identified the gunmen as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui – both Tunisians. He also added that the security forces are still looking for two or three people who may have helped the gunmen.

Authorities said that about 50 people were injured in the attack. Poland reported 11 wounded, while Italy said there were at least six. At Tunis’ Charles Nicolle hospital alone, doctors said there were also French, Japanese and Belgian patients. Tunisian authorities say that one Russian national seems to be among the injured.

“I want the people of Tunisia to understand firstly and lastly that we are in a war with terror, and these savage minority groups will not frighten us,” said newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi in an evening address to the nation. “The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated.”

The approximately three-hour attack and hostage siege took place at the Bardo Museum in the country’s capital. The crisis concluded when security forces stormed the building – next to the Tunisian parliament – and killed the two gunmen.

Ahmad Fadli, who witnessed the events unfolding and is a correspondent for the Al-Tunisia newspaper, said the militants were wearing soldiers uniforms.

“I was situated exactly opposite the Bardo Museum. A few people in military uniforms returned towards the museum and started shooting and took hostages,” Fadli said.

“There are at least two gunmen, though there maybe more. The two were seen with Kalashnikov rifles rushing into the building,” the Tunisian journalist added.

The militants had entered the museum through the country’s parliament in Tunis, which was also in session. MPs managed to reach safety and the building was evacuated as a precaution. Both the parliament and the museum are located in Bardo Palace.

Around 200 people were believed to have been in the museum when the gunmen struck. Local reports said that 160 tourists were rescued from the building via a back door, while around 20 to 30 were still in the building as the siege continued.

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A picture on Facebook taken during the hostage crisis showed what seemed to be a security officer, who was escorting the museum visitors to safety. There were a number of children present, as the attack occurred during a Tunisian school holiday.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini called for confronting “terrorist organizations,” blaming them for the deadly attack on Wednesday.

“With the attack that has struck Tunis today, the terrorist organizations are once again targeting the countries and peoples of the Mediterranean region,” Mogherini said in a statement. “This strengthens our determination to cooperate more closely with our partners to confront the terrorist threat.”

The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that his country would be standing by the Tunisian government in the wake of the tragedy, which killed 19 people.

“We are condemning this terrorist attack in the strongest terms,” Valls said speaking after a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. “We are standing by the Tunisian government. We are very alert about how the situation is evolving,” he added, according to Reuters.

The office of French President Francois Hollande has issued a statement, saying that the French President was “saddened by the deaths of two French nationals.”

The UN Security Council also condemned the Bardo museum attack while stressing the need to bring “perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of the “reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest also offered condolences to the family saying that the US wants to help with the investigation and is proud of its “robust cooperation with Tunisia on counterterrorism and broader security issues.”

In addition US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington “commends Tunisian authorities’ rapid response to today’s wanton violence and their efforts to resolve the hostage situation and restore calm.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the violence “a cowardly attack on us all.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos additionally confirmed on Twitter that two Colombian citizens had been among the victims of the attack.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has confirmed the deaths of three Japanese nationals, and said that three others were injured. "Terrorism cannot be tolerated under any circumstances,” he said.

The Bardo Museum has a major collection of Roman mosaics and other antiquities from ancient Greece and North Africa. It was the second museum to be founded in Africa and traces the history of Tunisia over thousands of years, and through numerous civilizations.