Armed men have seized hostages after opening fire at a leading museum in Tunisia’s capital, leaving at least eight people dead and six more wounded, including foreign tourists.
Wednesday’s attack was the first on a tourist site in years in Tunisia, a shaky democracy that has struggled to keep violence at bay since the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.
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The attack is a blow to Tunisia’s efforts to revive its tourism industry. The Bardo National Museum , built within a 15th-century palace, is the largest museum in Tunisia with collections covering two floors, and it houses one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics.
“There are eight victims”, including “seven foreigners”, Mohamed Ali Aroui, Interior Ministry spokesperson, said.
“Forces are being deployed. There are two or more attackers and hostages are still being held.”
He said the assault was carried out by “terrorists armed with Kalashnikovs”. Aroui did not provide the nationalities of the foreign victims.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry announced that three Poles were among the wounded.
It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.
Security forces filled the area around the Bardo National Museum after the attack. The museum is located adjacent to the National Assembly, or parliament.
Yasmine Ryan, an independent journalist who covers North Africa, told Al Jazeera from Tunis that ambulances were going in and out of the area, which had been cordoned off by the security forces.
“More than 15 police officers are on guard at the entrance of the museum and all roads leading to the area have been cordoned off,” she said.
The parliament building was evacuated soon after the attack and state TV quoted politicians as saying that gunfire could be heard at the scene.
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, who has covered Tunisia extensively, said: “The Tunisian national guard is well trained for this sort of situations. Presidential security forces are the particularly elite ones.”
Local reporters said on Twitter that the attackers entered the museum through the National Assembly building and took several tourists hostage.
— Chagraaa (@RealChagra) March 18, 2015
Nombreux badauds et nombreux renforts sur place au Bardo pic.twitter.com/3prbn0RKij
— Elodie Auffray (@elodieauffray) March 18, 2015
Sayida Ounissi, a member of parliament, said the following on Twitter: “In addition to members of parliament, the minister of justice, some judges, and several high level army offices were at the location.”
En plus des députés, le ministre de la justice, des juges et plusieurs cadres de l’armée étaient sur place.
En plus des députés, le ministre de la justice, des juges et plusieurs cadres de l'armée étaient sur place.
— Saida Ounissi (@SaidaOunissi) March 18, 2015
Saying there was a great deal of panic at the scene, Ounissi said: “The neighbourhood is in the process of being cordoned off; there is one armed man, maybe several on the museum side, there has been exchange of gunfire and probably hostages.”
Tunisia recently completed its bumpy transition to democracy after the 2011 uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, but security remains a key worry due to the emergence of armed anti-government groups.
It has been more stable than other countries in the region, but it has struggled with violence by armed groups in recent years, including some linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
Tunisia also has fighters linked to al-Qaeda’s North Africa arm who occasionally target Tunisian security forces.
The attack comes a day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighbouring Libya of a leading suspect in Tunisian attacks and the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.
Ahmed Rouissi gained the nickname of the “black box of terrorism”.