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Hammond defends Tunisia evacuation

Published 10/07/2015

An armed policeman patrols on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, after the beach massacre
An armed policeman patrols on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, after the beach massacre

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has defended the repatriation of 3,000 British tourists after protests from the north African country that the UK was playing into terrorists' hands.

It came against a backdrop of tension and sadness on home soil, as the funeral services for British casualties were held while terror alerts in Tunisia have been ramped up amid concerns of another attack.

Some Britons in Tunisia voiced anger that the Foreign Office had not changed its travel advice to warn against visiting the country immediately after the June 26 attack in the resort of Sousse, when gunman Seifeddine Rezgui murdered 38 holidaymakers - including 30 UK nationals - in an outrage for which the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility.

But others said they were disappointed to have to cut their holidays short. Heidi Barlow, 34, said she was reassured by the armed guards posted at hotel entrances and beaches, adding: "People feel safe. They certainly didn't expect to have to leave."

Foreign tourism accounts for around 15% of Tunisian GDP, and the country's ambassador in London, Nabil Ammar, warned: "This is what the terrorists want. By damaging the tourism, by having foreigners leaving the country, they damage the whole sector and put so many people out of work and on the streets.

"One of the sources of terrorism is lack of hope. It is not the only motor of it but it is one of the very important origins."

Mr Hammond said the Government had been careful not to act in a "knee-jerk manner" by urging Britons to quit Tunisia after the Sousse attack, and said the UK will continue to work with Tunisia on improving security and hoped to downgrade the travel advice "in the not too distant future".

Downing Street said that "substantial" work is needed to improve security for tourists, and it was likely to be "some time" before the advice against travel can be lifted.

The first disappointed holidaymakers forced to return home from Tunisia today criticised the Government's handling of the issue as they arrived back in the UK at Manchester Airport.

Tracey Caburn returned from Tunisia with her mother, Maureen Sudmore and sister Debbie Murphy, from Pontefract.

Mrs Caburn said: "It's a disgrace. We felt safe. We would've stayed there. We didn't feel threatened at all. There were guards on the roof, the gates, the beach. We wanted to stay.

"If they were going to bring us home so quickly they should not have let us fly out in the first place. "

Les Aston, 61, from Shrewsbury, was also disappointed to be home.

He said: "They let us go out there and now we've been brought back home. It makes no sense. The staff were in tears when we left the hotel. Tourism in Tunisia will be ruined."

Downing Street said the revised travel advice was based on information received over the previous 24 hours. This included evolving intelligence about the threat to Britons in Tunisia; information from the Tunisian security authorities that people with possible links to the Sousse attack were still at large; and the results of a security assessment carried out by UK experts.

Tour operators Thomson and First Choice have cancelled all flights to Tunisia for the summer season, and extra flights are being laid on from today to evacuate up to 3,000 British package holidaymakers and 300 independent travellers believed to be in Tunisia.

A Thomas Cook spokesman said it was "strongly advising" customers in Tunisia to return to the UK over the weekend, and was sending specialist assistance teams to the country to offer additional support in resorts. Monarch Airlines is arranging to repatriate all customers in resorts "back to the UK as soon as possible".

Today 400 mourners paid their final respects to a "devoted" Scottish couple gunned down in Sousse.

The family of Jim and Ann McQuire, from Cumbernauld in North Lanarkshire, thanked the congregation at Abronhill Parish Church for their support.

The couple's son Stuart said his parents had "lived to enjoy life".

He said: "They were a couple devoted to each other and who lived to enjoy life. They spent their lives contributing so much to the community. Through their many interests they made friends and helped many causes within and out with the church."

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