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Tunisia's image as refuge shattered by deadly museum raid

Thursday, March 19, 2015 - 18:26
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Tunisia's standing as a haven from regional instability was shattered as gunmen stormed a museum in the capital, leaving at least 22 people dead in one of the country's most violent attacks.

[LONDON] Tunisia's standing as a haven from regional instability was shattered as gunmen stormed a museum in the capital, leaving at least 22 people dead in one of the country's most violent attacks.

The assailants, dressed as soldiers and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, entered parliament in Tunis on Wednesday then moved to the nearby Bardo Museum where they took hostage a group of visitors, most of them foreign tourists. There was no claim of responsibility. Prime Minister Habib Essid identified the slain gunmen as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, without elaborating.

Five Japanese, four Italians, two Spaniards, two Colombians, an Australian and a French citizen were among at least 20 tourists who died, state-run TAP news agency reported Thursday, revising a previous lower toll. Poland said two of its citizens were among the casualties. Forty-two people were wounded.

Even though it witnessed the first uprising of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has avoided the worst of the turmoil that has since engulfed North African and Middle Eastern nations including Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. It installed a government led by the secular Nidaa Tounes party after peaceful elections last year, and the economy has registered improvements in exports, tourism and foreign investment.

The gunmen who gathered in the capital were striking at that record, said Abdul Latif Hannachi, a modern history professor at Manouba University in Tunis.

"Terrorists used to target security forces away from the cities, now they're hitting tourists and right in the heart of the capital," he said. "Their choice of the parliament and a museum visited by hundreds of tourists daily gives a clear political message that they're targeting the culture, the economy and the political regime altogether."

A police officer also died before security forces ended the siege at the museum, killing two gunmen. Three others may have been involved in the raid, Essid said. The Bardo houses many of Tunisia's most important cultural treasures.

Nidaa Tounes called on the government and lawmakers to quickly pass a "terrorism law," which was being debated as the gunmen struck, and boost the capacities of security services. Tunisians should consider themselves in an "open war against terrorism," the party said on its Facebook page.

The White House condemned the attack as "heinous," while Italy and Spain confirmed their citizens were among those killed. Poland was among the first countries to alter travel advice, advising its citizens to avoid Tunisia.

Tunisia's benchmark stock index rose 0.8 per cent to 5,280.71 on Thursday after falling 2.5 per cent on Wednesday, the most since February 2013.

The four years since the revolt that ousted longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have been punctuated by violence. The assassinations of two opposition leaders, claimed by Islamic State supporters, triggered the fall of Islamist-led governments.

Dozens of members of the security forces have died in battles with al-Qaeda-linked militants and bombings, much of the violence taking place far from Tunis near the border with Algeria. Tunisia has emerged as the largest source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State group fighting in Syria and Iraq.

In forecasting Tunisia's economy would grow 3.7 per cent this year, the International Monetary Fund in December said security threats and political tension may undermine the recovery.

"The attack is likely to change the perception of the average person in Europe or the US of Tunisia, but anyone who has followed the country for the past four years knows Tunisia wasn't an entirely safe place to be," said Riccardo Fabiani, a senior North Africa at Eurasia Group.

Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi said the country is "in a state of war against terrorism, and we will win."

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that held power for most of the period since Tunisia's uprising before losing elections last year, also condemned the attack.

"We stand behind our army and security forces, one line to combat terrorism," he told Al Jazeera television.

Mr Essid called on Tunisians to support the army and security forces as the country goes through "a sensitive and important phase" of its transition to democracy. He said that 400 people had recently been arrested for suspected terrorism links and vowed to increase security at tourist sites.

"Tunisia was trying, especially after the elections and the formation of the national unity government, to push this image of opening up for business," said Eurasia's Mr Fabiani. "They had a very ambitious reform plan, now all of this is likely to be much less effective."

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