Gunmen stormed Tunisia's national museum yesterday, murdering at least 19 people including 17 foreign tourists, in an atrocity which threatened the stability of the country widely held as the sole success of the Arab Spring.
In one of the bloodiest extremist attacks targeting Western citizens in North Africa, up to five attackers in military uniforms killed visitors from Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland as they assaulted the renowned Bardo Museum next to the parliament building in the capital, Tunis. Witnesses described how the attackers opened fire on coaches outside the building with AK-47 rifles around midday before then continuing inside where there were an estimated 200 visitors.
A tour guide said one of the attackers had appeared to be casually playing with his Kalashnikov before opening fire. There were unconfirmed reports that other attackers used knives on their victims.
More than two dozen tourists were reported to have been injured in the onslaught, which ended after a three-hour stand-off when Tunisian special forces killed two gunmen and freed an unspecified number of hostages in a final counter-assault. Two members of the Tunisian security forces were among the dead.
Habib Essid, Tunisian prime minister said: "It is a critical moment in our history, and a defining moment for our future... our nation is in danger."
There were no immediate claims of responsibility but Mr Essid said it had been clearly aimed at decimating Tunisia's important tourism industry. Suspicion focused on Islamist militants from neighbouring Libya or within Tunisia itself.
A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said: "We are currently liaising with our members and the Foreign Office to assess the impact and understand if any British nationals have been caught up in the attack.
"Abta has currently around 6,500 customers in Tunisia, though very few of these are staying in Tunis. As a precaution many tour operators have cancelled excursions to Tunis due to depart over the next few days."