Middle East

Tunisia tightens security after tourist spot attacks

Tunisian security forces inspect the area of a failed suicide bomb attack near the four-star Riadh Palms hotel, in the resort town of Sousse, a popular tourist destination 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of Tunis, on October 30, 2013. AFP PHOTO/STR

TUNIS: Tunisia tightened security Thursday after two failed suicide bombings dealt a blow to the vital tourism industry, underscoring a rise in jihadist violence that has stoked a months-long political crisis.

Only the suicide bomber was killed Wednesday in one attack on a beachside hotel in Sousse while security forces thwarted another suicide bid soon after in neighbouring Monastir.

The botched attacks came amid a rise in jihadist violence since the 2011 ouster of long-ruling strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the first of the Arab Spring revolts.

The unrest is at the heart of a months-long standoff between the ruling Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist movement, and the opposition, which accuses the government of failing to secure the country.

On Thursday police checks were considerably strengthened in and around Sousse, while tourists in the nearby resort of El Kantaoui said they were concerned but resolved to enjoy the rest of their vacations.

"Yesterday I was scared, frankly. But I think such incidents are mostly a threat to Tunisia. The weather here still attracts us, and I'm determined to finish my holiday," said French tourist Aurelie.

Michele, another French holidaymaker lying on the beach, was also determined to see out her holiday. "I don't want to think too much and ruin my vacation," she said.

Tunisians who rely on the tourism industry were less sanguine.

"We are scared to death," said a porter at the four-star Riadh Palms hotel in Sousse, the apparent target of the first botched attack.

In the capital Tunis, police beefed up their presence on central Habib Bourguiba Avenue and used barbed wire to cut off vehicle access to the interior ministry.

Security was also stepped up at Zarzis, a tourist spot near Djerba island and the border with Libya, which is considered a transit point for arms smugglers.

An AFP journalist said tanks were deployed around hotels, and police and army patrols searched vehicles on the road to Libya.

Wednesday's attacks sparked fears about the future of Tunisia's tourism sector, still struggling from the 2011 revolution, which caused a 30-percent drop in revenues.

Jean-Pierre Mas, the head of French tour operator Selectour Afat (AS Voyages), said it was too early to say if the industry would be affected by the attacks but cautioned that the immediate future was bleak.

Mas said the attacks and political instability "are not favourable to the redeployment of tourism in Tunisia," adding that the current season did not take off as hoped.

But Mohamed Ali Toumi, the head of a Tunisian travel agents' federation, expressed optimism ahead of the winter high season for travel to desert areas on the borders with Algeria and Libya.

"People are a little reluctant to book stays, this is true, but we believe it will be short-lived... It will be difficult for the next few days, then we will return to normal, God willing," he said.

'Attacks won't derail transition'

The presidency insisted the attacks, which have yet to be claimed, would not "derail" the democratic transition following the 2011 revolution.

A national dialogue is under way between Ennahda and the opposition to end a months-long political crisis sparked by the July assassination of opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi by suspected jihadists.

As part of a roadmap agreed to break the stalemate, Ennahda is to hand over power to an interim government made up of independents.

Ennahda's veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi, who has been criticised in the past for encouraging dialogue with hardline Salafists, denounced "those who tried to target tourists," calling them "criminals who want to destroy Tunisia, its economy and its democratic transition."

In Wednesday's first attack, the suicide bomber blew himself up near the Riadh Palms hotel in Sousse, the interior ministry said.

Witnesses said he had tried to enter the hotel but fled to the beach when guards spotted him.

Within half an hour, security forces foiled another suicide attack by an 18-year-old man on the tomb of former president Habib Bourguiba, in Monastir, just down the coast from Sousse.

Authorities said five members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia movement were arrested over the attacks.

Wednesday's failed suicide bombings were the first in Tunisia since 2002, when 21 people were killed in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda at Djerba's ancient Ghriba synagogue.

Ennahda, which swept Tunisia's first post-revolutionary elections in October 2011, has been sharply criticised by the opposition for failing to combat a rise in jihadist militancy.

The government has linked Tunisia's armed jihadists to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and says it lacks the resources to combat them.





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