CAIRO — Gunmen in military uniforms killed 19 people on Wednesday in a midday attack on a museum in downtown Tunis, dealing a new blow to the tourist industry that is vital to Tunisia as it struggles to consolidate the only transition to democracy after the Arab Spring revolts.
Tunisian officials had initially said that the attackers took 10 hostages and killed nine people, including seven foreign visitors and two Tunisians. When security forces retook the museum about four hours later, however, the death toll more than doubled, raising questions about how and at what point the hostages had died.
The attackers, who wore military-style uniforms and wielded assault rifles, were killed, the prime minister said, adding that 44 were wounded.
Newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi in an address to the nation said that “we are in a war with terror.”
“I want the people of Tunisia to understand firstly and lastly that we are in a war with terror, and these savage minority groups will not frighten us,” he said.
“The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated.”
Prime Minister Essid said that the attack was an unprecedented assault on the economy. “This is cowardly act to undermine our economy and a vital sector [tourism] contributing to it,” he said.
“It is long battle to fight. We need all Tunisians to stand up against this act.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012, seriously damaging the embassy grounds and an adjoining American school. Four of the assailants were killed.
Overall, though, violence in Tunisia in recent years has been largely focused on security forces, not foreigners or tourist sites.
In October 2013, a young man blew himself up on a beach in the coastal town of Sousse after being chased from a hotel, causing many to expect a new wave of attacks on tourism. None materialized until now.
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.
Speaking at the Louvre museum to call for international efforts to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria against extremist destruction, French President Francois Hollande said he had called Tunisia’s president to offer support and solidarity.
“Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,” Hollande said.