TUNIS — July 1, 2015: The gunman who killed 38 tourists in Tunisia received weapons training from jihadists in Libya, a top official said yesterday, as the president admitted security services were unprepared for the attack.
On Friday, a student identified as 23-year-old Seifeddine Rezgui went on a bloody rampage with a Kalashnikov assault rifle at the five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel in Port El Kantaoui near Sousse.
Secretary of state for security Rafik Chelli told AFP Rezgui had been in Libya at the same time as the two men behind a March attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis that killed 21 tourists and a policeman.
Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, which controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“It is confirmed that he (Rezgui) went to Libya illegally. He was trained in Sabratha (west of Tripoli),” Chelli said.
“They were away at the same time… In Sabratha, there is only one camp that trains young Tunisians,” he said, although he could not confirm whether they had trained together.
The camp was run by the jihadist Ansar al-Sharia group.
Tunisian analyst Slaheddine Jourchi said the revelation shows the real danger that the chaos in neighbouring Libya poses for Tunisia.
Earlier Tuesday, French radio broadcast an interview with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who said security had been boosted after the museum attack in other areas for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But authorities had not expected beaches to be targeted, he said.
“It is true that we were surprised by this incident. Arrangements were made for the month of Ramadan, but they never thought (measures) had to be taken on the beaches,” Essebsi told Europe 1.
British couple died together
After the Bardo attack, jihadists threatened further violence, with IS sympathisers tweeting under the hashtag #IWillComeToTunisiaThisSummer.
Several witnesses said the beach attack lasted more than 30 minutes before the gunman was shot dead, but officials say they were on the scene within minutes.
Tunisia is expected to deploy 1,000 armed officers today to reinforce tourism police — who will also be armed — at beaches and attractions.
But analyst Jourchi warned: “Despite Tunisia’s security measures, there are networks that are capable of crossing the border to bring the young men into camps in Libya, train them in the kinds of weapons they want them to use in their attacks, and then bring them back into Tunisia when the time is right for them.”
Since Friday, thousands of tourists have flown home, including at least 4,000 to Britain, the country hardest hit.
Another 1,900 are due for repatriation in the coming days, travel companies Thomson and First Choice said.
Tunisian health authorities have now identified 33 of the dead, 25 of them Britons, with British officials warning the number is expected to rise to at least 30.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman told reporters the first bodies of British victims were expected to be repatriated today.
The children of London couple Janet and John Stocker, aged 63 and 74, released a statement yesterday mourning their parents’ deaths.
“They were both young at heart and enjoyed all that life could offer, and especially enjoyed travelling to new places, exploring and appreciating local cultures, and they died together doing what they enjoyed most; sunbathing side by side,” they said.
Warning on the economy
Tunisia’s crucial tourism industry was already suffering from the upheaval that followed the 2011 overthrow of ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and other jihadist attacks.
But officials said Friday’s massacre may do the most damage yet.
“We can count, at least, with regards to the impact on gross domestic product (GDP), on a loss of earnings of a billion dinars ($515 million/460 million euros),” Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi Rekik told reporters Monday.
Tourism accounts for seven per cent of Tunisia’s GDP and employs around 400,000 people.
“If tourism collapses… the economy falls apart,” the minister warned, announcing plans to provide exceptional loans to help tourism businesses.
France’s travel agency union said Monday that 80 per cent of package holidays booked for July had been cancelled.
However, some stuck to their holiday plans.
“I think we need to help our Tunisian friends,” said Christiane, a French tourist arriving at Monastir airport near Port El Kantaoui.
In a separate development, the trial of 24 people accused of links to the February 2013 assassination of prominent Tunisian opposition figure Chokri Belaid began and was adjourned to October 30.
Belaid was a staunch leftwing critic of the then-ruling Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist movement.
Jihadists claimed the killing and the authorities announced in February 2014 that Belaid’s assassin had been killed in a police raid on terrorist suspects.
But Belaid’s family has repeatedly demanded to know the full truth behind the murder.