Tunis – Survivors of the Tunisian museum massacre on Thursday told how they smeared themselves with blood and played dead as others tried to hide or escape from the gunmen.
Smears of blood and smashed glass were still on the doorsteps of the Bardo Museum in Tunis on Thursday, even as thousands of Tunisians gathered outside the building to protest against a new wave of terrorism in the country.
Until Wednesday, their fledgling democracy was the biggest success to emerge from the Arab Spring.
Twenty-three people were killed, including 20 foreign tourists.
Among them was one Briton, named on Thursday as Sally Adey, 57, a mother of two from Shropshire.
Her husband, Robert, 52, is thought to have been unharmed in the attack.
Reports on Thursday night suggested the couple had booked a last-minute cruise.
Isis claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday, but Tunisian officials said the two gunmen, who were both killed, had no clear links to extremists.
Analysts said existing militant cells were simply being inspired by the group.
However, jihadists in Iraq, Syria and neighbouring Libya all claimed they had opened a new front in their war on the West.
Survivors told of their horror as the gunmen launched the attack.
Hamadi Alaa Eddine, who works with the palaeo-Christian collection at the Bardo Museum, told The Independent that he had helped to save 17 people by showing them a place to hide in a side room on the first floor.
“I told them not to make a noise,” said the 22-year-old.
“I witnessed seven or eight people being shot.”
Another tourist, “an Englishman”, begged Mr Eddine to help his wife, who had been shot, but Mr Eddine was unable to rescue her, he said. It was not clear whether this was Mrs Adey and her husband.
Mr Eddine managed to escape the building long enough to inform security that there were people trapped in the side room.
A French tourist told the France.info website that she had survived by playing dead after she was shot in the knee.
The woman, named only as Maryline, from Paris, said a man standing in front of her was shot in the head.
“There was a great hole in his head. I felt his body slip on to mine. I understood that it was probably thanks to this person that I’m still alive,” she said.
With the gunmen firing “in all directions”, she crawled over to where a friend was hiding.
“So what we did, as we were scared the terrorists would come back, was to smear victims’ blood over our bodies. We were injured but only lightly. As we were still alive, we thought it would be best to play dead … in case they returned,” Maryline added.
Two Tunisians and tourists from Japan, Italy, Colombia, Australia, France, Poland and Spain were among those killed.
Nine people were arrested on Thursday, with four being questioned over alleged direct links to the attack and five others said to have ties to a “cell”.
The were named on Thursday by authorities as Yassine Laabidi, reportedly known to security services, and Hatem Khachnaoui. The men – described as “knights of the caliphate” by Isis – were said to have been killed in exchanges of gunfire after their bullets ran out.
Authorities said the gunmen had been recruited at mosques in Tunisia and travelled to Libya in September for “training”.
As thousands gathered outside the Bardo Museum to protest against the terrorists, the army was being deployed in major cities across Tunisia. Laabidi and Khachnaoui appeared to have been working in collaboration with watchmen seated in a café across the road, security officials said.
They timed their attack to the moment two buses arrived at the museum gates, opening fire in the car park before entering the building.
Analysts have long warned that Tunisia could become a target for Isis. The North African nation has seen an estimated 3,000 of its citizens travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis. An estimated 500 have returned. “Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain,” the jihadists warned on Thursday. An Isis statement described the murders as a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia”.
The Bardo Museum, a symbol of Tunisia’s rich cultural history, was a deliberate target, said Culture Minister Latifa Lakhdar.
“It’s not by chance that they targeted the Bardo Museum,” she said, noting that it was a continuation of Tunisia’s identity struggle that had emerged in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising.
“They are attacking 3 000 years of our history.”
The attack echoed similar attacks on cultural sites elsewhere in the Arab world by extremist groups claiming to be acting in the name of Islam in recent years.
Tunisia’s Justice Minister, Mohamed Salah Ben Aissa, said that police had arrested 400 people in the four weeks leading up to the museum attack, and that the crackdown on suspected militants would continue.
Controversial anti-terrorist legislation, which has raised concern among civil rights activists for reinforcing police impunity, is likely to be pushed through parliament within the next 48 hours, he said.
Marwan Ben Sassi, 36, was one of the protesters outside the museum. He held a placard reading: “No to terrorism.”
He said: “We want to show that we are with the dead and solidarity with the police too.”