TUNIS: At least 27 people, including foreigners, were killed Friday in a mass shooting at a Tunisian beach resort packed with holidaymakers, in the North African country’s worst attack in recent history.
The carnage came on a day of bloodshed with a suicide bomber killing 13 people at a Shia mosque in the Kuwaiti capital and a suspected Islamist launching an assault on a gas factory in eastern France.
Witnesses described scenes of panic and confusion after the shooting at a hotel in a district of Sousse, about 140 kilometres (87 miles) south of Tunis.
An armed man “entered through the back of the hotel and opened fire”, said interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui.
The toll is “27 dead including tourists”, he told AFP without giving their nationalities.
A dozen more people were reported to have been hospitalised.
“It was a terrorist attack” targeting the Marhaba Hotel in the Port El Kantaoui district, Aroui said.
“The assailant was killed,” he added, without ruling out the possibility that there was more than one attacker.
The shooting came just months after a March attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman.
Gary Pine, a British holidaymaker, said the shooting happened at around midday (11H00 GMT) when the beach was thronged with tourists.
“We saw what we thought was firecrackers going off, so we thought someone was celebrating. But you could see quite quickly the panic that was starting to ensue from the next resort along from us,” he said.
“People were exiting the beach pretty quick. We’re all looking up thinking, what do we do, what is it, but only when you could start hearing bullets whizzing around your ear do you realise it was something a lot more serious than firecrackers.”
The tourist area was later completely sealed off by security forces, a witness told AFP by telephone.
The French embassy in Tunis, in an SMS message, urged its nationals to be vigilant and to “limit travel and avoid gatherings”.
President Francois Hollande of France and his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi both expressed their “solidarity in face of terrorism”, a French statement issued in Paris said.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has seen a surge in radical Islam since veteran president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the 2011 revolution.
Dozens of members of the security forces have been killed since then in jihadist attacks.
In October 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a beach in Sousse while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby.
Even before the latest attack, Tunisia’s tourism industry had been bracing for a heavy blow from the Bardo museum shooting.
The tourism sector, which accounts for seven percent of Tunisia’s GDP and almost 400,000 direct and indirect jobs, had already been rattled by political instability and rising violence.