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Tunisia ups massacre museum security, reopening delayed

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 21:50
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Tunisia's national museum was forced to delay its planned reopening on Tuesday, officials said, as security was boosted around the site of last week's jihadist massacre that killed 21 people.

[TUNIS] Tunisia's national museum was forced to delay its planned reopening on Tuesday, officials said, as security was boosted around the site of last week's jihadist massacre that killed 21 people.

Hundreds gathered outside the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis, many carrying placards encouraging foreigners to visit Tunisia which relies heavily on tourism income.

The museum's head of communications told AFP plans to reopen to the public on Tuesday were scrapped "at the last minute".

"The interior ministry says that for security reasons we cannot receive a large number of visitors," Hanene Srarfi said.

Museum officials had planned to reopen on Tuesday, six days after an attack claimed by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group killed 20 tourists and a policeman.

"We have no date" for the reopening to the public, Mr Srarfi said.

Several events had been planned for Tuesday to protest against the attack, with hundreds of people demonstrating outside the museum.

Some held signs in English reading "Visit Tunisia", while others carried banners that said "I will receive you with jasmine".

"If we want tourists to come back we must set an example," demonstrator Najet Nouri said.

A handful of tourists arrived at the Bardo unaware that the reopening had been postponed.

"We were not told. We came here to visit the museum," French tourist Eliane Cotton told AFP.

A ceremonial reopening featuring the Tunisian Symphony Orchestra and a tribute to the victims was still planned to go ahead.

A culture ministry statement said there had been "logistical" problems in readying the museum for an anticipated "thousands of people".

The authorities announced at the weekend the Bardo would reopen on Tuesday, less than a week after the deadly rampage.

Museum directors said they wanted to resume normal operations as soon as possible to show that the gunmen "had not achieved their objective".

Officials have admitted there were security failures on the day of the attack on the complex, which is next to Tunisia's parliament.

The incident has raised deep fears for the vital tourism industry.

The assault was the first to be claimed in Tunisia by IS, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and claimed attacks in several Arab countries.

On Monday, Prime Minister Habib Essid sacked the police chiefs for Tunis and the area around the museum.

An officer in charge of security at the Bardo was arrested and jailed, although no official explanation was given.

With feeble growth and graduate unemployment at 30 per cent, there are fears the attack could impact Tunisia's shaky economy by discouraging visitors.

A spokesman for Mr Essid said the museum would reopen soon, "but there is work to do".

"The museum is very well secured, I can assure you," Mofdi Mssedi told AFP.

An AFP reporter said police had begun erecting additional barriers around the museum entrance.

Protest organiser Amel Smaoui said it was "a shame" that the reopening had been delayed.

"It's about showing a positive image to counter the desired effect" of the attack, she said. "We want to show people standing together."

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni was due to attend the afternoon ceremony, paying his respects to the four Italian tourists killed in the massacre.

President Beji Caid Essebsi has said a third suspect in the shooting is being hunted, after two gunmen shot dead at the scene were revealed to have received training at militant camps in neighbouring Libya.

Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and Libya to join jihadist ranks, raising fears of returning militants plotting attacks.

"They return hardened, better-trained and capable of operations such as this," Mr Essid said. "This is a serious problem."

AFP