Mar 19, 2015 5:48 AM

Tunisia: Gunman known to intelligence ahead of attack

The Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) One of the two gunmen who killed 19 tourists and others at a prominent Tunisian museum was known to intelligence services, Tunisia's prime minister said Thursday. But no formal links to a particular terrorist group have been established in an attack that threatens the country's fledgling democracy and struggling tourism industry.

Razor wire ringed the National Bardo Museum on Thursday and security forces guarded major thoroughfares, while authorities hunted for two or three more people believed to have been involved in Wednesday's attack, the worst in years targeting a tourist site.

It also spelled new trouble for the tourism industry, which brings throngs of foreigners every year to Tunisia's Mediterranean beaches, desert oases and Roman ruins and had just started to recover after years of slump. Two cruise ships whose passengers had been among the victims left the port of Tunis early Thursday.

In an interview with France's RTL radio, Prime Minister Habib Essid said Tunisia is 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 after they attacked the museum.

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.

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 calls on Muslims to attack tourists, but does not say who orchestrated the attack.

Legislator Bochra Belhaj Hmida, of the secular majority party Nida Tunis, told The Associated Press 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."

Wednesday's attackers, who wore military-style uniforms and wielded assault rifles, burst from a vehicle 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.

Two cruise ships whose passengers had been among the victims pulled out of the port of Tunis early Thursday. MSC Cruises said nine passengers from the Splendida were killed, 12 injured and six unaccounted-for as its ship pulled out to the Mediterranean at sunrise. Another ship, the Costa Fascinosa, said 13 passengers had not returned on board when the ship left port overnight.

The 17 tourists killed included people from Japan, Italy, Colombia, Spain, Australia, Poland and France. Essid said two Tunisian nationals also were killed by the militants.

At least 44 people were wounded, including tourists from Italy, France, Japan, South Africa, Poland, Belgium and Russia, according to Essid and doctors from Tunis' Charles Nicolle hospital.

Best1cruise spokesman Takao Ogawa confirmed that two of the three Japanese victims were part of a group tour of 23 tourists arranged by the company for MSC Excursions, but declined to release their identities. The tour joined the cruise from Genoa and was to continue to Paris. He said it was not immediately clear whether the group will continue traveling.

Best1cruise is preparing to arrange a flight for the victims' families if they wish to travel to Tunis.

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 an attack on Poles abroad.

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.


Associated Press reporters Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Jeff Schaeffer in Tunis, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.


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