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Tunisia death toll rises to 37 (update 6)

The body of a tourist shot dead by a gunman lies near a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia

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 37 people and injuring 36 others, 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.”

Rafik Chelli, a senior interior ministry official, said the gunman killed was a student, unknown to authorities and not on any watchlist.

Dressed in shorts, the assailant 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 37 dead. Others 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 neighbouring 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!'”

Thomas Cook, which has holidaymakers in the resort, said: “Thomas Cook has been advised of an incident that occurred earlier today in Sousse, Tunisia.

“At this time, details are not clear as to which property(ies) have been affected, with conflicting news reports.

“We are currently gathering information and will provide an update as soon as possible. Our teams on the ground are offering every support to our customers and their families in the area.

“We will continue to monitor the situation, working closely with the FCO and local authorities.”

British holidaymaker Gary Pine is staying in the El Mouradi Palm Marina hotel close to where the incident happened.

Situated at the back of the hotel, near the pool area, he told Sky News by phone that he could no longer hear any noise and said the hotel was “very, very quiet” at that stage, but said it would have been very busy.

“The beach tends to be full up very quickly so it’s the usual story of getting down to lay your towel at half past six to get a decent beach position, so all of the beach positions were taken,” he said.

Pine said that at the front of his hotel alone there would have been “several hundred” people, and he said he could see every resort along and there would have been “several hundred” more outside the others.

“So it’s quite a busy beach.

“There’s a lot of people walking up and down, taking in this lovely weather, so it’s a very busy beach, but as I said it became apparent very quick that it was something more than firecrackers when you could hear bullets whizzing around,” he said.

The atrocity, along with a terror attack in France in which a man was decapitated, prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to announce that the Government’s emergency Cobra committee would meet to discuss the situation.

Speaking at the conclusion of the European Council summit in Brussels, Cameron said he had spoken to French president Francois Hollande to offer his support following the attack in Grenoble and would also speak to the Tunisian government following the attack there to offer “our solidarity in fighting this evil of terrorism”.

He said: “This is a threat that faces all of us. These events have taken place today in Tunisia and in France but they can happen anywhere. We all face this threat.

“There will be a ministerially-chaired Cobra meeting, the Government’s emergency committee, later on this afternoon to make sure we are doing everything we can to co-operate and co-ordinate with other countries and any information that we have we share with them in fighting this threat.”

He added: “We have got to do all we can to help. That means co-operating on counter-terrorism, building our capacity on counter-terrorism, it means dealing with the threat at source whether that is Isil in Syria and Iraq or whether it is other extremist groups around the world.

“Perhaps more important than anything is poisonous radical narrative that is turning so many young minds and we have to combat it with everything we have.”

The Prime Minister said that the West must stop “the poisoning of … young minds” by Islamic State (IS) and other extremists.

“The people who do these things, they sometimes claim they do it in the name of Islam. They don’t. Islam is a religion of peace. They do it in the name of a twisted and perverted ideology that we have to confront with everything that we have.

“We must stop the poisoning of these young minds in our country, in other European countries, and around the world.”

Sousse, alongside nearby Hammamet and the island of Djerba, is the heartland of Tunisia’s most popular beach resorts, drawing visitors from Europe and neighbouring 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 neighbouring 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.


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