At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed Wednesday when gunmen carried out a brazen daytime attack on a famed museum next to parliament in Tunis, officials said.
“A terrorist attack (targeted) the Bardo Museum,” ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told reporters, adding that the assault was by “two or more terrorists armed with Kalashnikovs”.
“There are eight victims” including “seven foreigners”, Aroui said, adding that about 100 tourists had been inside the museum at the time of the attack.
“The majority of tourists were evacuated,” he said.
Aroui refused to confirm reports of a hostage taking inside the museum, but added “there is information according to which there are still tourists” in the building.
“Anti-terrorist units have entered the museum,” and the surrounding area had been cordoned off, he said.
President Beji Caid Essebsi was to make a public statement to the nation, spokesman Moez Sinaoui told AFP.
Prime Minister Habib Essid was meeting with the interior and defence ministers.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the Bardo National Museum, a famed repository of ancient artefacts.
– ‘Flagship’ of Tunisian culture –
But Tunisia has been struggling to tackle a rise in attacks from Islamist extremists.
An AFP photographer reported hearing shots fired neared the parliament and museum and said police had rushed reinforcements to the area.
An Islamist lawmaker, Monia Brahim, told AFP the gunfire prompted parliamentary committees to suspend their meetings as lawmakers were ordered to assemble in the main chamber.
Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamist extremism since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Dozens of police and military personnel have been killed or wounded in attacks blamed on Islamist militants.
An army offensive against the jihadists, who are linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been underway since 2012 but the ground and air campaign has failed to eliminate them.
The country is also fighting against the radicalisation of Muslim youth, with authorities saying as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight in jihadist ranks, including the Islamic State group.
Essebsi said the government’s “top priority” is “providing security and the battle against terrorism” after it took office last month following Tunisia’s first free elections.
Tunisia became the birthplace of the Arab Spring with its overthrow of Ben Ali and, despite the continued unrest, has taken pride in forming a stable and democratic government.
The country is hoping to rebuild its once-burgeoning tourism industry, which is struggling to recover from the effects of the 2011 revolution.
Tourist arrivals dropped by three percent last year.
The Bardo museum, renowned for its exceptional collection of ancient mosaics, is a significant draw and opened a new wing in 2012 following a major facelift.
It boasts objects from prehistory, the Phoenician period and Punic and Numidian times, as well as Roman, Christian and Islamic artifacts.
Its curator had described it as “the flagship of (Tunisia’s) heritage”.
Housed in a former palace dating from the 19th century, the museum greeted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year before the revolution. In 2011 the number dropped to about 100,000 but has been recovering.