Days after beach attack, Tunisia admits unpreparedness of security services
TUNIS - Tunisia's president has admitted security services were not prepared for last week's jihadist beach massacre, as authorities warned the country is likely to lose more than half-a-billion dollars in tourism revenues.
Friday's carnage -- which saw a gunman kill 38 people, mostly British holidaymakers, at a seaside resort -- was the second attack on tourists in Tunisia claimed by the Islamic State group in just three months.
President Beji Caid Essebsi said security had been boosted in other areas for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which has seen Islamist violence in previous years, but that authorities had not expected beaches to be a target.
"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 said in an interview with French radio broadcast on Tuesday.
On Friday a Tunisian identified as 23-year-old Seifeddine Rezgui pulled a Kalashnikov assault rifle from inside a beach umbrella and went on a bloody rampage at the five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel in Port El Kantaoui near Sousse, south of the capital Tunis.
IS, which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria, swiftly claimed the attack.
The jihadist group had also claimed responsibility for killing 21 tourists and a Tunisian policeman at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March.
After the Bardo museum attack, jihadists threatened new violence, with IS sympathisers tweeting under the hashtag #IWillComeToTunisiaThisSummer.
"It's not a perfect system," Essebsi told Europe 1 radio. "If there were failings, disciplinary action will be taken immediately."
Tunisia vowed new security measures in the wake of the attack and on Wednesday will deploy 1,000 armed officers to reinforce tourism police along its Mediterranean coastline.
- Exodus of foreigners -
There were no signs yet of increased security at the scene of the shooting spree, with no police visible at the hotel or in the surrounding area, an AFP journalist said.
Police and vehicles that had deployed on Monday during a visit by the interior ministers of Britain, France and Germany were gone by Tuesday morning.
Several witnesses to the attack said it lasted more than 30 minutes before the gunman was shot dead, but officials say they were on the scene within minutes.
Thousands of frightened tourists have fled Tunisia since Friday, including at least 4,000 who were flown home to Britain, the country hardest hit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman told reporters on Tuesday that 21 Britons have been identified, and another nine British citizens are believed to be among the dead.
She said that the first bodies of British victims were expected to be repatriated on Wednesday.
Tunisian health authorities have so far identified 27 of the victims.
The attack was Britain's worst loss of life in a jihadist attack since the July 2005 London bombings and prompted a call from Cameron for increased efforts to fight extremism.
- Tourism faces 'collapse' -
Tunisia's tourism industry was already suffering from the political upheaval that followed the 2011 overthrow of ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and previous 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 late Monday.
"I think that's just the minimum, but it's still an estimate."
Tourism accounts for seven percent of Tunisia's GDP and employs around 400,000 people.
"If tourism collapses... the economy falls apart," the minister warned, announcing government plans to provide exceptional state loans to help tourism businesses this year and next.
France's travel agency union said Monday that 80 percent of package holidays booked for July had been cancelled, with customers rushing to other destinations.
Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamist militancy since the Arab Spring revolt which toppled Ben Ali.
On Tuesday, the trial opened of 24 people accused of links to the February 2013 assassination of prominent Tunisian opposition figure Chokri Belaid.
Belaid, who was gunned down outside his home, was a staunch leftwing critic of the then-ruling Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist movement.
Jihadists claimed both killings 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 the full truth behind the murder.