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Gunmen storm Tunisian museum, kill two Tunisians, 17 foreign tourists

Reuters logo Reuters 3/18/2015 By Tarek Amara and Mohamed Argoubi

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Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed Tunisia's national museum, killing 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians on Wednesday in one of the worst militant attacks in a country that had largely escaped the region's "Arab Spring" turmoil.

Visitors from Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain were among the dead in the noon assault on Bardo museum inside the heavily guarded parliament compound in central Tunis, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.

"They just started opening fire on the tourists as they were getting out of the buses ... I couldn't see anything except blood and the dead," the driver of a tourist coach told journalists at the scene.

Scores of visitors fled into the museum and the militants took hostages inside, government officials said. Security forces entered the building, a former palace, around two hours later, killed two militants and freed the captives, a government spokesman said. A police officer died in the operation.

The attack on such a high-profile target is a blow for the small North African country that relies heavily on European tourism and has mostly avoided major militant violence since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Authorities did not immediately identify the gunmen. But several Islamist militant groups have emerged in Tunisia since the uprising, and authorities estimate about 3,000 Tunisians have also joined fighters in Iraq and Syria -- raising fears they could return and mount attacks at home.

"All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy," Prime Minister Essid declared in a national address.

The local stock exchanged dropped nearly 2.5 percent before closing and two German tour operators said they were cancelling trips from Tunisia's beach resorts to Tunis for a few days.

Accor, Europe’s largest hotel group, said it had tightened security at its two hotels in Tunisia.

TUNIS, TUNISIA - MARCH 18: Security measures are taken outside the National Bardo Museum, near the country's parliament in Tunis, when gunmen take an unknown number of tourists hostage on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (Photo by Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) © Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images TUNIS, TUNISIA - MARCH 18: Security measures are taken outside the National Bardo Museum, near the country's parliament in Tunis, when gunmen take an unknown number of tourists hostage on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (Photo by Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington condemned the attack and continued "to support the Tunisian government's efforts to advance a secure, prosperous, and democratic Tunisia.

Television footage showed dozens of people, including elderly foreigners and one man carrying a child, running for shelter in the compound, covered by security forces aiming rifles into the air.

Tunisia's government said 22 foreign tourists were wounded.

The museum is known for its collection of ancient Tunisian artifacts and mosaics and other treasures from classical Rome and Greece. There were no immediate reports the attackers had copied Islamic State militants in Iraq by targeting exhibits seen by hardliners as idolatrous.

"ARAB SPRING" TURMOIL

Tunisia's uprising inspired "Arab Spring" revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But its adoption of a new constitution and staging of largely peaceful elections had won widespread praise and stood in stark contrast to the chaos that has plagued those countries.

After a crisis between secular leaders and the Islamist party which won the country's first election, Tunisia has emerged as a model of compromise politics and transition to democracy for the region.

But security forces have clashed with some Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington, mostly in remote areas near the border with Algeria.

Affiliates of Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria have also been gaining ground in North Africa, especially in the chaos of Tunisia's neighbor Libya where two rival governments are battling for control.

A senior Tunisian militant was killed while fighting for Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte over the past week. Security sources said he had been operating training camps and logistics.

Wednesday's assault was the worst attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since an al Qaeda suicide bombing on a synagogue killed 21 people on the tourist island of Djerba in 2002.

A militant blew himself up at the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse in late 2013 but no one else was killed or wounded.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Agroubi and Valentina Consiglio in Italy; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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