Gunmen opened fire Wednesday at a major museum in Tunisia’s capital, killing at least 20 people, mostly foreigners, in one of the worst terrorist attacks in this struggling North African democracy that depends heavily on tourism.
Men with assault rifles fired at tourists climbing from buses in front of the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis near the country’s parliament, sending dozens sprinting for safety. Two gunmen were killed, but Prime Minister Habib Essid said a manhunt was on for at two or three others.
The identity of the attackers wasn’t clear. Twitter accounts associated with the terrorist Islamic State group based in Syria and Iraq were described as overjoyed at the attack, urging Tunisians to “follow their brothers,” according to Rita Katz of SITE, a U.S.-based organization that monitors terrorist groups.
About 50 people were wounded in the attack, which began after noon local time, according to Tunisian state media.
Security forces immediately flooded the area around the museum, and Tunisia’s parliament building, where deputies were debating a new anti-terrorism law, was evacuated.
Dozens of tourists scrambled from the museum holding hands or linking arms as Tunisian security forces pointed their guns toward an adjacent building.
According to Essid, the dead include two gunmen, a Tunisian security officer and a Tunisian cleaning woman, while the rest were tourists from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain.
Tunisia has struggled to keep terrorism at bay since the overthrow of its dictator in 2011, and the attack was the worst on a tourist site since an al-Qaida car bomb killed 21 people — mostly Germans — in 2002.
“Our nation is in danger,” Essid warned in an address on national media Wednesday evening after the siege ended.
“We will be merciless in the defense of our country,” he added, describing the attack as an unprecedented assault on Tunisia’s economy. He promised increased security in tourist zones and asked residents to be extra alert.
The United States, France, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations denounced the bloodshed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington “condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s deadly terrorist attack” and praised Tunisia’s “rapid response” to resolve the hostage situation and restore calm.