Saturday, June 27, 2015

Tourists Flee as Chilling Details Emerge in Tunisia
Moenes Sboui and Oren Dorell,
USA TODAY 1:19 p.m. EDT June 27, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia — Stories of terror and bravery emerged Saturday as foreign visitors rushed to leave Tunisia by the busload after a gunman opened fire on a beach resort, killing 38 people.

At least 39 people were wounded in the nation's deadliest onslaught Friday before the shooter was killed by security forces. The gunman was identified as Seifeddine Rezgui by Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid.

Rezgui was not known to authorities before the attack, Essid said. He was from a village in a poor central region of Tunisia and had never traveled abroad.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors terrorists' activity online.

Rezgui — whom the Islamic State called by his jihadi pseudonym, Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani — was radicalized at mosques in Kairouan, where he earned his degree in electronics and enrolled in a master's program at a local sciences and technology university, Radio Mosaique reported. Kairouan is located about 40 miles west of Sousse.

Rezgui's parents were arrested at their home, where police also seized documents linked to extremism, according to the Tunisialive news site.

Busloads of tourists were cutting their vacations short Saturday and making their way to the Enfidha-Hammamet airport with the hope of returning home, the Associated Press reported. Britain said at least 15 of its citizens were among the dead and the British death toll could rise.

Tunisian security forces had been on alert since March when two Tunisian gunmen opened fire on the Bardo museum in Tunis, killing 22 people, mostly tourists. Two gunmen were killed in that attack, for which the Islamic State also claimed credit.

The second terrorist attack this year to center on tourists is likely to deal a heavy blow to the country's tourism industry, which accounts for nearly 15% of Tunisia's gross domestic product.

The Tunisian attack was one of three deadly terror incidents to hit three separate nations Friday. In France, a man once placed on a "radicalization list" drove his truck into a U.S.- owned gas factory, triggering an explosion as his boss' severed head was found at the entrance, authorities said. In Kuwait, about two dozen people were killed in an Islamic State attack on a Shiite mosque during prayers.

"Tunisia is in a constant war against terrorism," said President Beji Caid Essebsi, vowing to crack down on terrorism in his country. "Tunisian state is concerned about this issue, and it will take its responsibilities and take measures that could be painful but necessary."

The president said he would revoke the right of political parties and groups to assemble, if necessary, if they advocated militancy or expressed solidarity with the Islamic State.

Essid said 80 mosques he claimed advocate violence and and "incite terrorism" would be closed within a week, according to Tunisian news site GlobalNet. He also said he would call up reservists to strengthen security services, offer financial rewards to tipsters, and that some mountainous areas on the Algerian border would be declared military operations areas.

Essid called on Tunisians to work together. "The homeland is threatened, and the state is threatened," he said. "Without the cooperation of all and the closing of ranks, we can not win the war."

Witnesses at the resort town of Sousse said bodies were strewn in the sand alongside beach chairs as the gunman opened fire on sunbathers. Among the Britons killed in the attack were Carly Lovett, a fashion photographer, and Lorna Carty, a mother of two, according to The Daily Express of London.

Among the injured was gas engineer Matthew James, 30, who was shot in the shoulder, chest and hip as he acted as a human shield to save his fiancee, Sarah Wilson, the paper said.

"He took a bullet for me. I owe him my life because he threw himself in front of me when the shooting started," Wilson, 26, told the paper from the hospital in Tunisia where James was recovering from surgery.

Briton Tom Richards, 22, who was at the hotel with his mother, Sam, and his brother, Calum, 16, told the British newspaper The Guardian he came face to face with the shooter, but escaped with only minor injuries.

Tom and Sam Richards were at the pool when they heard gunfire at the beach and ran for cover inside the hotel. Tunisian staff ushered them to an upper floor, where they huddled with about 20 other confused and frightened guests, he said. But the gunman followed the same route on his rampage.

"He shot two people, through the head," as they were standing on the stairs, Richards said.

Then he pointed his gun at Richards. "He looked right at me, I thought I was dead... He had long black hair and a beard," he said.

But when the man fired, he fired at the ground, wounding Richards, his mother and others in the area with shards of marble. Richards told the paper he and his mother hid in a nearby bathroom, where he bandaged wounds to his wrist and her ankle with toilet paper.

Outside the bathroom, they heard more shooting and people screaming that they were wounded, "but we couldn't step out to see," Richards said. He did help a young woman who had a large shard of marble embedded in her thigh, and together the three waited until security officials arrived and told them they were safe.

Dorell reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Doug Stanglin in McLean, Va.

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