Tunisia’s president said late Wednesday that his country was “in a war with terror” and condemned what he described as “savage minority groups” after gunmen stormed a museum in the capital, Tunis, killing 19 people.
Meanwhile, early Thursday, the country’s prime minister told French radio station RTL that one of the attackers was known to the country’s intelligence services, but no formal link had been established with any terror groups.
The deadliest attack on civilians in the North African country since 2002 began early Wednesday afternoon when two militants wearing military-style uniforms and wielding assault rifles burst from a vehicle and began gunning down tourists climbing out of buses at the National Bardo Museum.
The attackers, identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, then charged inside to take hostages before being killed in a firefight with security forces. Prime Minister Habib Essid said that said Laabidi had been flagged to intelligence, although not for “anything special.”
Security forces guarded major thoroughfares Thursday while authorities hunted for two or three accomplices believed to have been involved in the attack. Two cruise ships whose passengers had been among the victims pulled out of the port of Tunis early Thursday. MSC Cruises said nine passengers from the Splendida were killed, 12 injured and six unaccounted for as its ship pulled out to the Mediterranean at sunrise. Another ship, the Costa Fascinosa, said 13 passengers had not returned on board when the ship left port overnight.
Essid said the gunmen killed 17 tourists — five from Japan, four from Italy, two from Colombia, two from Spain, and one each from Australia, Poland and France. The nationality of one dead foreigner was not released. Essid said two Tunisian nationals also were killed by the militants.
Early Thursday, the Japanese government said that three of its citizens were killed and three others injured in the attack. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Essid’s earlier report of five Japanese dead turned out to be wrong after officials checked names by talking to the families traveling together and visiting hospitals. The names of the victims were not released.
At least 44 people were wounded, including tourists from Italy, France, Japan, South Africa, Poland, Belgium and Russia, according to Essid and doctors from Tunis’ Charles Nicolle.
Twitter accounts associated with the Islamic State terror group based in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) were described as overjoyed at the attack, urging Tunisians to “follow their brothers,” according to Rita Katz of SITE, a U.S.-based organization that monitors militant groups.
ISIS has not been believed to have a foothold in Tunisia, but has established a presence in neighboring Libya and Algeria. A counterterror analyst told Fox News that the museum attack may be linked to the death of Ahmed Rouissi, a senior ISIS commander in Libya whose body was found last week near the city of Sirte. Rouissi was a leading member of Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia group and believed to be responsible for the killing of two Tunisian opposition leaders in 2013.
A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits — some 3,000, according to government estimates — have joined ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq and many have received training in Libya.
Witnesses described the gunmen “shooting at anything that moved” inside the museum, which is Tunisia’s largest. It is housed in a 15th century palace and boasts one of the world’s largest collections of ancient Roman mosaics.
Josep Lluis Cusido, the mayor of the Spanish town of Vallmoll, said he saw people being gunned down on the plaza outside the museum before the gunmen moved inside.
“After they entered the museum. I saw their faces: They were about 10 meters away from me,” Cusido told Spain’s Cadena Ser radio station.
“I managed to hide behind a pillar, there were unlucky people who they killed right there,” he said, adding that he and his wife spent nearly three hours in the museum until they got out uninjured.
Dozens of tourists scrambled from the museum linking arms or clutching children as Tunisian police and security forces pointed their weapons at the building. The museum, 2½ miles from the city center, is located near the national parliament building, which was evacuated.
Hours after the police ended the siege, thousands of Tunisians flocked to downtown’s landmark Bourguiba Avenue, where the revolution took place, for a nighttime rally. They chanted for a “Free Tunisia” in defiance of terrorism.
“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,” said newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi in a televised address to the nation. “The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated.”
Essid said the attack was an unprecedented assault on the economy. It came as Tunisia’s all-important tourism business was starting to rebuild after drastic losses following the post-revolutionary turmoil. Numbers of arrivals for 2014 had begun to approach the levels of 2010 — before the revolution.
On Wednesday night, parliament held an extraordinary session where Speaker Mohammed Ennaceur called for the creation of a special fund to combat terrorism. He also called for the rapid passage of the anti-terror law that parliament had been debating when the attack took place.
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.
North Africa analyst Geoff Porter said an attack on a tourism site has long been expected as the militants come under pressure from increasingly effective Tunisian security forces.
“Today’s attack did not come out of nowhere. In fact, it comes amid ongoing counterterrorism efforts elsewhere in the country,” he said about the attack. “Increasing pressure on terrorist activities … may have squeezed the balloon, with terrorists seeking softer targets with more symbolic impact in the capital.”
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.