Death toll from Tunisia hotel shooting attack rises to 37
TUNIS, June 26 (Reuters) - The death toll from the shooting attack on a Tunisian seaside resort hotel on Friday has risen to 37, the health ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency TAP.
A gunman disguised as a tourist opened fire at a Tunisian hotel on Friday with a weapon he had hidden in an umbrella, killing 28 people, including British, German and Belgian tourists, as they lounged at the beach and pool in a popular resort town.
Terrified tourists ran for cover after the gunfire and an explosion erupted the Imperial Marhaba in Sousse resort town, 140 km south of the capital Tunis, before police shot the gunman dead, witnesses and security officials said.
The attack took place during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, on a day in which a decapitated body daubed with Arabic writing was found in France, a suicide bomber killed two dozen people at a mosque in Kuwait and at least 145 civilians were reported killed by Islamic State militants in northern Syria.
It was the second major attack on Tunisia this year following the Islamist militant assault on Tunis Bardo museum when gunmen killed 21 foreign visitors.
The body of the attacker lay with a Kalashnikov assault rifle where he was shot. Local radio said police captured a second gunman, but officials did not immediately confirm the arrest or his role in the attack."One attacker opened fire with a Kalashnikov on tourists and Tunisians on the beach of the hotel," said a hotel worker at the site. "It was just one attacker. He was a young guy dressed in shorts like he was a tourist himself."
The man, dressed in shorts, pulled out a weapon he had hidden inside an umbrella he was carrying before opening fire at the beach and pool and tossing an explosive, witnesses said. A security source said another bomb was found on his body.
A health ministry statement said British, German and Belgian nationals were among the 28 dead. Six other people were wounded in the shooting, officials said.
Tunisia, which has been hailed as a model of democratic transition since its 2011 'Arab Spring' uprising, is one of the most secular countries in the Arab world. Its beach resorts and nightclubs on the Mediterranean are popular with foreigners.
No one immediately claimed the attack. But Islamist jihadists have attacked North African tourist sites before, seeing them as legitimate targets because of their open Western lifestyles and tolerance of alcohol.
Irishwoman Elizabeth O'Brien, who was staying at a neighboring hotel with her two sons, said there was panic on the beach when gunfire erupted.
"I honestly thought it was fireworks and then when I saw people running... I thought, my God, it is shooting," she told Irish radio station RTE. "The waiters and the security on the beach started to say 'Run, run, run!'"
Sousse, alongside nearby Hammamet and the island of Djerba, is the heartland of Tunisia's most popular beach resorts, drawing visitors from Europe and neighboring North African countries like Algeria.
Six million tourists, mostly Europeans, visited Tunisia's beaches, desert treks and medina souks last year, providing seven percent of its gross domestic product, most of its foreign currency revenues and more jobs than anything but farming.
"This is a catastrophe, but we have to stay strong," Tourism Minister Salma Loumi said.
Since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been praised for its peaceful democratic transition bringing free elections and a new constitution seen as a model for the region.
But the country has also struggled with the rise of Islamist movements as ultra-conservative preachers took advantage of the upheaval and young democracy to take over mosques and spread their hardline message.
Several thousand Tunisian jihadists have left the country to fight in Syria, Iraq and neighboring Libya, where some have set up jihadist training camps and promised to return to attack their homeland.
Islamic State made some claim to the Bardo museum attack, but authorities blamed possible splinter fighters from the Okba Ibn Nafaa, a brigade of al Qaeda-affiliated fighters, operating in the Chaambi mountains along the Algerian border.