A GUNMAN who killed at least 38 people – including British and Irish tourists – as they sunbathed in a Tunisian beach resort hid a gun in an umbrella and disguised himself as a holidaymaker, Tunisian authorities have revealed.
The attacker – believed to be an Islamist student from the central region of the North African country – opened fire on tourists holidaying at a popular beach resort in south-eastern Tunisia.
The worst terror incident in Tunisia’s history came on the same day a man was found decapitated after an attack by suspected Islamist extremists on a French factory and a Shiite mosque in Kuwait was bombed, killing at least 25 people. Although the attacks do not appear to be directly linked, they came after the so-called Islamic State (IS) called on its followers “to make Ramadan a month of calamities for the non-believers”.
Eyewitnesses in Tunisia reported people fleeing as the attacker, who had hidden his Kalashnikov under a beach umbrella and wore swimwear to blend in, fired on holidaymakers staying at hotels in the beach area of Sousse.
Tunisian security forces said the gunman had entered a hotel through the pool area, shooting people as he went. Hundreds of people were believed to be sunbathing on the beach when the attack took place, at around noon local time.
Tunisia’s health ministry confirmed that those killed included Britons, Tunisians, Germans and Belgians. The Irish foreign office has confirmed that one of those killed was a female Irish national. Thirty-six others have been wounded.
The interior ministry had previously said two attackers were involved, including one who fled the scene, but has since said a lone gunman was responsible. He was reportedly shot dead.
The incident is the second terrorist attack at Sousse, coming less than two years after a failed attack in October 2013.
• Anyone concerned about friends or relatives in Tunisia can contact the Foreign Office on 020 7008 0000
Scottish holidaymakers Diane Boyd, from East Kilbride, and her partner David Fleming, from Coatbridge, are staying in a hotel next to the beach in Sousse.
Ms Boyd said: “We were on the beach sunbathing when he heard sudden noise which sounded like gunfire.
“Everyone was running very quickly from the beach into their hotel so we just got up and ran with them and went into the reception area, which was all quite hectic. We ended up going up to our room for about an hour and from our balcony we could see the beach. We could see armed policemen, we could see helicopters, ambulances and coastguards.”
Mr Fleming said: “We heard a barrage of shots. Originally I just thought it was fireworks, but then people started running. So we just got up and ran with them. It was quite scary, to be honest.”
The couple arrived in the resort, which is popular with British and Irish tourists, on Sunday.
Olivia Leathley, 24, a chef from Stockport, was with her boyfriend Mike Jones in her room at the Riu Bellevue Park hotel when she heard “loud bangs” from the beach. She said: “We heard all these really loud bangs and we joked it was probably the reps letting off fireworks. We saw all these people running in from the beach.
“We didn’t really know what was happening so we came down to the lobby to find out what was going on and they said ‘Everybody stay here, we’ll let you know what is going on’.
“We found this girl whose husband had been shot in the stomach in front of her. She got dragged away by hotel reps trying to get her to safety but she was a complete mess. She was in hysterics.”
She added: “We were all waiting in the lobby, a few hundred of us thinking, what should we do, waiting for someone to give us instructions. Then, all of a sudden, from the level just below the lobby there was a huge sound of loads of machine gun fire and one of the reps just said ‘run’.
“I was crying and we heard the machine gun fire and it was so loud and it seemed like it was just behind us, it seemed so close. There were about eight of us out the front just running towards the street then another rep said, ‘Not that way it’s not safe, go that way’, so we ran to the left and found this little office building on the hotel site and we ran in there and got to a room with no windows and just crouched and waited until they said it was OK.”
Secretary of state for security Rafik Chelly said the gunman had disguised himself as a tourist.
He said: “He is Tunisian, originally from the Kairouan region [in central Tunisia]. He is a student.
“This person was not known [to us],” he added. “He entered by the beach, dressed like someone who was going to swim, and he had a beach umbrella with his gun in it. Then when he came to the beach he used his weapon.”
Gary Pine, a British man staying at the resort, tweeted minutes after the attack: “Gunshots on the beach, mass panic here. Confusion rife.”
Two hours later, he reported that helicopters were circling above his hotel, the El Mouradi Palm Marina.
Mr Pine said his 22-year-old son had just come out of the sea after a game of volleyball when the attacks occurred. He said there had been a large bang which holidaymakers had thought was firecrackers and a mass exodus from the beach as people rushed to safety.
“You could see then quite quickly the panic about 100 yards away, and so then people started exiting the beach pretty quickly, but only when you can start hearing bullets around your ears did you start to realise it was something more serious than firecrackers,” he said.
“We do consider ourselves to be lucky in that of the hotels lined up that all access the same beach area, it seems to be the two hotels to our left and literally 100 yards down that seem to have been hit,” he said.
Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, said: “We note that Tunisia faces an international movement. It cannot respond alone to this.
“On the same day at the same time France has been the target of such an operation, and Kuwait too. This proves the need for a global strategy and that all democratic countries must now join forces.”
According to the Foreign Office, 424,707 British nationals visited Tunisia in 2014.
A statement from the Foreign Office said: “Gunmen attacked the Imperial Hotel and Hotel Club Riu Bellevue at Port El Kantaoui, near Sousse. A number of people have been killed and injured. A British embassy crisis team is on its way to the area.”
• The Foreign Office has set up an emergency number for friends and family of those who may have been affected, on 020 7008 0000.
Attack latest in string of terrorism incidents
The latest attacks come just months after gunmen attacked a museum in Tunisia’s capital.
On 18 March this year, two gunmen opened fire on guests at the Bardo Museum, a popular tourist attraction in Tunis, in an attack that left 23 dead and 22 injured, and ended with a seige of the building by Tunisian security forces, both gunmen being killed after a firefight with armoured police.
The incident was the first major terrorist attack in Tunisia since the popular uprising in 2011 sparked the “Arab Spring” revolts in Egypt, Syria, and Libya.
The attacks took place as Tunisian lawmakers held a committee meeting in government building connected to the museum, leading to the evacuation of the entire parliament.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling the terrorists “knights of the caliphate” and praising their “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia”.
The majority of the victims of the attack on the museum were tourists, with British mother Sally Adley killed, and Japanese, Italian, German, Polish, French and Spanish also among the dead.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a failed attack on the beach in Sousse in October 2013.