Independent News and Media

Gunman storms beach resort killing at least 37 people

AT least 37 people, including British tourists, have been shot dead after a gunman stormed a beach resort in Tunisia, strafing holidaymakers as they lay on sun loungers and sat beside swimming pools.

Brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle concealed behind a parasol, the suspected jihadist attacker carried out the bloodiest terror attack in the North African country's history within hours of murderous assaults by Islamist extremists in France and Kuwait.

The decapitated head of a man, scrawled with Arabic writing, was found at the site of gas factory near Lyon following an assault by a single attacker reportedly waving a black Islamist flag. In Kuwait, at least 25 people were killed in a suicide blast at Shia mosque.

Isis have reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack in Sousse, Tunisia, via a social media account on Friday night.

Witnesses in Sousse, a popular resort some 80 miles south of the Tunisian capital, described how the calm of a beach holiday was shattered by the sound of automatic gunfire as the attacker made his way from the seafront towards the five-star Imperial Marhaba and Club Bellevue hotels, killing and injuring scores as sunbathers were ordered to run for their lives.

One hotel worker told The Independent how he had come face-to-face with the gunman, identified as a 22-year-old Tunisian student, who told him he would avoid shooting his compatriots and was solely interested in targeting tourists.

Ibrahim El Ghoul, a trainee mechanic who works part time in a nearby hotel, said the killer had been smiling and told him: "I don't want to kill you, I want to hit tourists."

Within moments, the beach and at least one hotel lobby were turned into scenes of carnage. Eye-witnesses described one injured man repeatedly telling his wife "I love you, I love you" before losing consciousness.

Mr El Ghoul he came across an elderly British woman who had been shot through the knee. He said: "She kept screaming  'I want to go home, I want to go home."

Graphic footage from the scene showed rescuers desperately attempting to treat victims clad in their swimsuits and rushing the critically injured were rushed to ambulances on sun loungers. Images showed the beach strewn with corpse, including the bloodstained bodies of a middle-aged couple lying on the sand beside a beach umbrella.

The attack began when the gunman, dressed in who had been hiding his AK-47 behind a sun umbrella suddenly dropped the parasol and opened fire.

Ellie Makin, a British holidaymaker from Ripon, North Yorkshire, described how she had been sat to one side of the jihadist. She told ITV News: "He was to right of me. I got up and just happened to look right and I saw the gun and the umbrella being dropped and then he started firing to the right. If he had fired to the left, I don't know what would have happened."

The attack took place during the holy period of Ramadan, when Tunisians tend to stay away from the beach and the dead were consequently overwhelmingly foreign holidaymakers.

Britons are feared to feature heavily among the nationalities on the death toll. Local radio reports and one local guide said the majority of the dead were British or German with one report quoting hospital sources saying at least 13 UK nationals had been killed. The authorities in Dublin confirmed that an Irish woman was among the dead. At least 36 people were injured.

Prime Minister David Cameron flew back from the EU summit in Brussels to chair a meeting of the emergency COBRA committee, saying more needs to be done to confront the "death cult" behind the attacks.

Speaking before he left Belgium, Mr Cameron said: "We have to combat not only the terrorism, not only working with the countries that are suffering but dealing with this poisonous mindset, this death cult that is poisoning young minds and turning them to this path of mindless violence."

The beach rampage represents a likely savage blow to the economy of a country held to be one of the few success stories of the Arab Spring, having emerged from its 2010 revolution with a fragile but flourishing democracy.

The beach assault follows an attack in March on tourists visiting the famous Bardo museum in the capital Tunis, which left 22 people dead and had already seriously damaged Tunisia's vital tourist industry.

Figures produced by the Tunisian central bank said the numbers visiting the country had fallen by more than 25 per cent since April and revenues dipped by 26 per cent. In 2014, Tunisia had 6.1 million tourists, of whom 424,000 were Britons, and the industry represents more than 15 per cent of GDP.

Experts said the attack represented an attempt to destabilise the economy as part of wider political struggle to halt Tunisia's transition to democracy.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchins, from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, said: "[This] really is going to lead to a massive reduction in tourism. We have people relaxing on the beach on their holidays being murdered - that is not going to help the attempts by the Tunisian tourist industry to get people to come to the country."

It is unclear if the three attacks were linked but they come just days after an Islamic State (ISIS) spokesman posted a message entreating jihadis to the holy month of Ramadan into a "time of calamity for the infidels".

The attack on Sousse, a longstanding Mediterranean resort popular with Europeans, began shortly after midday when at least one gunman circled behind the Imperial Marhaba, owned Spanish hotel chain RIU, and made his way along neat lines of palm-topped parasols, shooting sunbathers before they could respond.

The man, wearing shorts and a t-shirt in an apparent effort to ensure he had blended in with his intended quarry, then entered a swimming pool area before coming into the reception area of the hotel, firing on targets before he was then cornered by security forces outside the hotel.

A bloodstained patch of asphalt marked the spot where the man, named as a 22-year-old student, fell. The Tunisian authorities said the gunman was unknown to them but appeared to have fallen in with extremists.

There were unconfirmed reports that a second gunman was arrested near the scene while other reports said one of the attackers had been dressed as a police officer.

Tunisians are among the nationalities most heavily represented in the ranks of ISIS, which has recently spread its area of operations from Syria to neighbouring Libya.

Tourists caught up in the attack described how they had initially thought the gunfire was fireworks before rapidly realising a deadly assault was underway and stampeding away from the beach.

Briton Steve Johnston, who was staying at the Imperial Marhaba, said: "It was soon pretty obvious it was not fireworks, it was firearms being discharged and people screaming and starting to run from along the beach.

"Me and my friend said 'that's guns, let's go' and we shouted to everybody around us who joined the sort of mass rush from the beach."

Many holidaymakers ran back to their rooms, barricading themselves inside with wardrobes and mattresses until heavily-armed security forces swarmed into area and declared an all clear.

As one charter airline immediately announced it would no longer fly to Tunisia, there was already evidence that many tourists in the country will vote with the feet. One image from Sousse showed tourists leaving en masse, dragging their suitcases behind them.

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