Inside Tunisia’s Bardo Museum attack

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Having witnessed the tragic events of Tunisia’s "Black Wednesday," As-Safir’s Hassan al-Fathali provides rare reporting on the happenings of the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis that took place March 18.

It is not easy to write about Tunisia, which has suffered from the tragic event at the Bardo Museum. I took part [in rescue and security coordination operations] and witnessed [part of] the event. I experienced it not as a correspondent of As-Safir, but rather as a parliamentary senior adviser and official spokesman. I supervised the rescue operations of the tourists, the coordination of the security operation and the evacuation of the [nearby] parliament headquarters.

The following is As-Safir’s special report on what happened on that black day, and especially on what has not been published regarding the heinous terrorist attack that took place in the Bardo Museum on Wednesday [March 18].

At the time, I was at the office of Tunisian parliament Speaker Mohammed Nasser, during the reception of the Chinese ambassador to Tunisia, Bian Yanhua. At 12:08 p.m., I got a signal from the parliament speaker's personal guards. I quickly left the office. The parliament speaker was shocked as I broke the protocol for the reception.

I asked the head of the speaker’s security team what was going on around us. Gunshots were quickly heard and a state of public alert was declared by the security personnel, given the presence of a terrorist group, whose number and identity were unknown. I returned to the parliament speaker’s office and informed him of the incident. He reassured the ambassador and the accompanying high-ranking officials.

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We contacted the Interior Ministry, the National Defense Ministry and anti-terrorism forces, which had received information on the incident. It only took a few minutes before the security forces arrived and helicopters circled above us. Anti-terrorism snipers were scattered on the neighboring rooftops, searching for the terrorists.

I made sure that the parliament speaker and the ambassador were safe. Yet, the building was occupied by nearly 120 people, including members of parliament, staff, journalists and citizens, who were following up on the legislative committee’s work. The Tunisian minister of justice, Mohammed Saleh Bin Isa, and Romania's ambassador to Tunisia, Nicolae Nastase, were also present, speaking to the committee.

The voices of the detained tourists could be heard every time a grenade exploded, and the sound of the explosions could also be heard outside the museum, which is only a few meters away from the parliament headquarters. In a panic, all employees and members of parliament gathered near the parliament central hall, while some of the party leaders were calming down the people.

At 12:22 p.m., I moved along with three employees, who were quick to bring a ladder about three meters [10 feet] high. We noticed on the museum's rooftop an opening that is close to the parliament's main entry. It is called the black entrance, through which we managed to evacuate nearly 50 French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese tourists. We were able to save them and to evacuate them to the parliament building's halls. These tourists were lucky. One of the terrorists noticed our presence and our actions and threw a grenade that entered through the window. Two members of the rescue team and two tourists were injured by the grenade’s fragments.

The operation became more and more critical, as two buses carrying tourists were shot at. Yassin al-Obeidi, 27, a terrorist who worked at a travel agency and hailed from al-Omran upper district in a northern suburb of Tunis, killed six tourists, including [retired] Colombian Gen. Jose Arturo Camelo’s wife and son. This is while Jaber al-Khachnawi, 21, a terrorist from Ibrahim al-Zahar village, located in the Sabibah district in Kasserine province bordering Algeria, managed to take hostage nearly 40 tourists on the ground floor of the museum.

The terrorists managed to gain access to the Bardo Museum just before 11:30 a.m. Dressed in civilian clothes, they took advantage of the large number of tourists and tried to blend in. They were barricaded in the Bardo Museum’s lobby without being noticed by the security personnel.

Around 1 p.m., we managed to transfer the officials to the office of the parliament speaker. I supervised the evacuation of the parliament building through its front entrance, as security and military forces secured the way. Tourists were subsequently evacuated. We transferred them to the “Throne Hall” and the “Royal Protocol Hall” of the parliament.

A number of doctors among the members of parliament provided first aid to those injured by shrapnel, while others sang the Tunisian national anthem to show unity, solidarity and togetherness among the various political and partisan families stationed inside the compound.

Fifty minutes into the start of the security operation, I managed, along with the security forces, to evacuate 90% of the people in the building. Journalists insisted on staying to cover the event, and I tried to protect them.

The parliament speaker, the ambassadors and the minister of justice were evacuated. Security forces beefed up their presence and gradually hemmed in the Bardo Museum building. Security estimates varied between two to four terrorists when the museum was first surrounded. Meanwhile, a counterterrorism squad tried to take the ammunition of those using tourists as human shields. There was no way to negotiate with the lovers of death and destruction, who started killing hostages and had no intention of surrendering or dropping their weapons — a Kalashnikov and a backpack full of grenades and knives.

In the meantime, a group tasked with dismantling explosives tried to secure the perimeter of the building and make sure that no mines or bombs were planted under the cars of the members of parliament and staff. Exchange of fire with the terrorists continued, and reinforcement was requested via foreign phone numbers.

Anti-terrorist squad agents raided the museum building and managed to kill the first terrorist. Meanwhile, [policeman] Ayman Morgan died after he stormed the headquarters of the museum. His explosives-sniffing dog was also killed.

Two hours into the bloody confrontation that led to the killing of 22 people and wounding of nearly 50 others, mostly tourists, the special forces managed to eliminate the terrorists and evacuate the injured tourists who were still alive and provide them with first aid.

The [terrorists’] plan was to kill more than 300 tourists, who had come on seven buses from a cruise ship to enjoy the beauty of the largest mosaic stock in North Africa at the Bardo Museum.

I moved to the crime scene where the victims drowned in their own blood. A [retired] Colombian general sat by the bodies of his wife and son. He lamented his misfortune. All of the tourists had left, but the general stayed as he had failed to contact his [regional] embassy. ... I tried to calm him down. With a Spanish accent, he told me in English that he has “more faith than those who killed his family and knows more about God than those criminals.” He was still in shock, and no words could relieve his sorrow as tears rolled down his cheeks onto his clothes.

Combing operations in the museum and its surroundings started even before the emergency meeting — of President of the Republic Beji Caid Essebsi, parliament Speaker Mohammed Nasser and Prime Minister Habib Essid — decided in the afternoon of the “Black Wednesday” to hold a meeting for the National Security Council headed by Essebsi. Meanwhile, the parliament speaker called for a special plenary meeting on the night of the incident to discuss the response to the terrorist attack and ensure the members of parliament's commitment to continue working.

I left the parliament building in the early morning of Thursday, March 19. It all felt like a nightmare or a Hollywood movie. Then I realized that terrorism came out of the mountains and came to us in defiance of the state's institutions and sovereignty symbols, but phrases from the Tunisian national anthem that we sang together in parliament kept ringing in my head: “We die for the sake of our land.”

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Found in: tunisia, tourism, terror attacks, killing, hostages, beji caid essebsi, bardo museum
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