Gunmen stormed a museum in Tunis on Wednesday, killing 19 people including 17 foreign tourists in the worst attack in Tunisia’s capital since the overthrow of the country’s dictator in 2011.
Armed men dressed in military uniform opened fire outside the Bardo Museum in the Tunisian capital, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.
The gunmen then followed fleeing tourists inside the museum building, holding several of them hostage.
Security forces ended the siege, killing two of the attackers, while two or three escaped the scene and were being sought, Essid told a press conference.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The attack prompted thousands of Tunisians to gather late Wednesday in a main square in the Tunisian capital carrying flags and chanting, “Tunis is free and terrorism is out.”
In a second press conference, Essid said the dead included 2 Tunisians, 4 Italians, 1 French, 2 Colombians, 5 Japanese, 1 Pole, 1 Australian, 2 Spanish and one body which was still not identified.
But Poland’s parliamentary speaker Radoslaw Sikorski said seven Polish tourists had died, although the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw refused to confirm that number.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed on Twitter the two Colombian deaths.
Forty-four people were wounded, Essid said, including 6 Tunisians, 13 Italians, 7 French, 11 Polish, 1 Russian and 2 South Africans.
The premier said that some of the wounded are listed in critical condition.
The Bardo Museum, one of Tunis’ main tourist attractions, has a rich collection of archaeological finds. It includes remains from the famed city of Carthage, destroyed by the Romans in the second century BC.
The museum shares an entrance with the country’s parliament, which was in session at the time of the attack. Lawmakers were evacuated by security forces.
Television pictures showed people running for shelter behind police lines, while photographs posted on social media showed tourists apparently sitting against walls inside the museum.
Italians injured in the attack were believed to have been touring the city after stopping over in the Tunisian capital during a cruise ship holiday.
Italian cruise ship operator Costa Crociere said one of its vessels docked in Tunis on Wednesday with 3,161 passengers. The company said all were asked to return immediately aboard following news of the attack.
“We are at war with terrorism and such a small minority won’t scare us,” President Beji Caid Essibsi said in a televised address.
He earlier visited the injured in the city’s Charles De Gaulle hospital, where he called the atrocity “a disaster that has befallen Tunisia.”
“We must start a general mobilization and completely finish off the terrorists,” Essibsi said.
The Islamist Ennahda party, a member of Essid’s coalition, condemned the attack and called for a national conference to “set a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.”
French President Francois Hollande, speaking at the Louvre museum during an event to decry the destruction of artefacts by extremists in Iraq and Syria, expressed France’s solidarity with Tunisia.
“We are all impacted,” by terrorist attacks, Hollande said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recalled that Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring and the only example of a successful democratic transition among the countries that experienced that wave of protests.
“Regardless of the assessments that will be made with more lucidity and calm, there is one fact: an attack on the democratic system, on the culture, on the moderation of the Tunisian government targets all of us,” Renzi said.
In Washington, the White House condemned the “terrorist attack” and offered US assistance in the investigation. “Their cowardly acts will not intimidate the Tunisian people,” the White House said.
The attack is the deadliest to have taken place in the usually peaceful capital since the 2010-11 revolution against dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia has a significant jihadist presence, but most clashes between militants and security forces have taken place in the mountainous west of the country near the Algerian border.
An attack by militants near the border killed four National Guardsmen last month.
Despite its population of about 11 million, Tunisia was last year estimated to have provided the largest single contingent of foreign jihadists in the Syrian civil war.