SOUSSE, Tunisia (Reuters) – Tour companies were evacuating thousands of foreign holidaymakers from Tunisia yesterday, a day after a gunman killed 39 people as they lounged at the beach in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid said most of the dead were British, and its health ministry said eight Britons, a German, a Belgian and an Irish citizen were among the casualties of the attack at a hotel in the resort town of Sousse.
It was the second big attack in the North African country this year, following an assault on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March when gunmen killed a group of foreign visitors as they arrived by bus.
Tunisia’s tourism minister called Friday’s attack, in one of the country’s most popular resorts for Europeans, a “catastrophe” for the vital industry and authorities vowed to toughen security, drafting in army reserves and arming tourism police at beaches and hotels.
“More than 3,000 foreign tourists have left Sousse today,” said Saloua Kadri, tourism commissioner for the town. “Around 2,200 British have left, and close to 600 Belgians too.”
Tunisian authorities named the gunman, who was shot dead by police, as Saif Rezgui, a student who they say was not known to authorities.
He opened fire on Friday at the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, 140 km (90 miles) south of the capital Tunis.
Tour operators Thomson and First Choice, which are owned by German travel group TUI, said they had about 6,400 customers across Tunisia at the time of the attack, including several of the people killed and injured.
They sent 10 planes to evacuate tourists and said 1,000 had already been repatriated. They also said they would cancel all their holiday packages to Tunisia for at least the next week.
TUI’s German tour operator TUI also organised flights for tourists wishing to return home and TUI’s Belgian airline, Jetairfly, sent six empty planes to bring tourists back from the towns of Djerba and Enfidha yesterday.
Nicola Harris was one of the tourists returning to Britain from Sousse.
“I didn’t feel right staying and sitting by a pool knowing that two minutes’ walk away that many people had died, it just felt wrong,” Harris told Sky News. “I shouldn’t be there enjoying my sunbathing when so many people have had such a horrific thing happen to them today.”
Tunisian authorities said the gunman was not on any watchlist of known potential militants. But one source said he appeared to have been radicalized over the last six months by Islamist militant recruiters.
Disguised as a tourist in shorts, he opened fire on tourists as they lounged on the beach at the hotel, with a rifle he had hidden in an umbrella. Security sources and witnesses said he made his way from the beach to the pool and hotel, targeting foreigners before he was shot dead himself by police.
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.
As one counter measure, Prime Minister Essid said that Tunisia planned within a week to close down 80 mosques that remain outside state control for inciting violence.
Tunisia, which has undergone a largely peaceful transition to democracy since its 2011 Arab Spring uprising, depends heavily on foreign tourism.