Tunisians honour massacre dead as museum reopening delayed

TUNIS (AFP) - Tunisians on Tuesday honoured the 21 people killed in an Islamic militant attack on foreign tourists at their national museum but its promised reopening was delayed.

Hundreds of people had gathered outside the National Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis for the reopening, before it was announced that it had been scrapped at the last minute.

Confusion reigned over the reasons for the delay, with museum officials suggesting it was because of “security” issues and government counterparts speaking of unfinished work at the site.

The culture ministry said “logistical” problems meant the facility was unable to handle “thousands of people”.

Museum directors said they wanted to resume normal operations as soon as possible to show that the gunmen “had not achieved their objective”.

Officials have admitted there were security failures on the day of the attack on the complex, which is next to Tunisia’s parliament.

An official ceremony honouring the dead – 20 foreign tourists and policeman – was to go ahead in the afternoon featuring the Tunisian Symphony Orchestra.

It would be open only to guests and the media.

Site managers reported minor damage to the facility during the attack, carried out by two men armed with Kalashnikovs and claimed by the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

Several events were planned for Tuesday to protest against the massacre, with hundreds of people demonstrating outside the museum.

Some held signs in English reading “Visit Tunisia", while others carried banners that said “I will receive you with jasmine”.

“If we want tourists to come back we must set an example,” demonstrator Najet Nouri said.

A handful of tourists arrived at the Bardo unaware that the reopening had been postponed.

“We were not told. We came here to visit the museum,” said Eliane Cotton of France.

'WORK TO DO'

The attack has raised deep fears for Tunisia’s vital tourism industry.

It was the first to be claimed in Tunisia by IS, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq and claimed attacks in several Arab countries.

On Monday, Prime Minister Habib Essid sacked the police chiefs for Tunis and the area around the museum.

An officer in charge of security at the Bardo was arrested and jailed, although no official explanation was given.

With feeble growth and graduate unemployment at 30 per cent, there are fears the attack could hurt Tunisia’s shaky economy by discouraging visitors.

A spokesman for Essid said the museum would reopen soon, “but there is work to do”.

“The museum is very well secured, I can assure you,” said Mofdi Mssedi.

An AFP reporter said police had begun erecting additional barriers around the museum entrance.

Protest organiser Amel Smaoui said it was “a shame” that the reopening had been delayed.

“It’s about showing a positive image to counter the desired effect” of the attack, she said. “We want to show people standing together.”

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni was due to attend the afternoon ceremony, paying his respects to the four Italian tourists killed in the massacre.

President Beji Caid Essebsi has said a third suspect in the shooting is being hunted, after the two gunmen shot dead at the scene were revealed to have received training at militant camps in neighbouring Libya.

Authorities say as many as 3,000 Tunisians have gone to Iraq, Syria and Libya to join militant ranks, raising fears of returning militants plotting attacks.

“They return hardened, better-trained and capable of operations such as this,” Essid said. “This is a serious problem.”