(CNN) — Gunmen killed 17 tourists and two others — one of them a Tunisian security officer — on Wednesday at a museum in Tunisia’s capital in what the North African nation’s Prime Minister called a “cowardly” terrorist attack.
Tunisian security forces managed to kill two attackers and end a hostage siege at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.
But the bloodshed isn’t necessarily over, with Essid saying that authorities are looking for three other gunmen.
“It’s a cowardly attack mainly targeting the economy of Tunis,” the Prime Minister said. “We should unite to defend our country.”
The scene played out in the heart of Tunisia’s capital, in a building linked to where the nation’s parliament meets and in an area frequented by tourists.
In fact, at least two cruise ships, the MSC Splendida and the Costa Fascinosa — with more than 3,000 passengers, according to its parent company Costa Cruises — were docked in Tunis at the time. Some MSC Splendida guests were on tours at the Bardo Museum on Wednesday, said MSC, its parent company.
Polish, Italian, German and Spanish tourists are among those killed, Essid said, with another 20 tourists plus two Tunisians wounded in the attack. He suggested that the terrorists wanted to hurt Tunisia’s economy by going after tourists.
While Essid didn’t specify where the attackers came from, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui called them Islamists in remarks on national radio.
Tunisia hasn’t had anywhere near the same level of militant violence as other nations in the region that were part of the Arab Spring uprisings, like neighboring Libya. But it hasn’t been immune to it either.
The government, for example, has seen several apparent political assassinations and has been battling a jihadist presence in the Chaambi Mountains.
And in February, the country’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of about 100 alleged extremists, and published a video allegedly showing the group possessed a formula for making explosives and a photograph of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria, more than any other country, according to the International Centre fort the Study of Radicalization in London.
Museum: ‘A jewel of Tunisian heritage’
Photos on Twitter showed security forces in bulletproof vests and black helmets and masks, guns drawn, in the area. Authorities set up a large security cordon around the targeted museum, Ryan said.
The museum is housed in a 19th century palace and describes itself as “a jewel of Tunisian heritage.” Its exhibits showcase Tunisian art, culture and history, and boasts a collection of mosaics, including one of the poet Virgil, as well as marble sculptures, furniture, jewels and other items.
As much as its place in Tunisian culture, the museum is significant for its location — right next to the building that houses the North African nation’s parliament.
That government building was evacuated shortly after noon Wednesday, Tunisian lawmaker Sayida Ounissi said on Twitter.
Sabrine Ghoubatini, a Tunisian lawmaker, said that an administrator interrupted a committee meeting to tell everyone “to lay down on the ground because there was an exchange of fire between terrorists and police. So we laid down on the ground, and they began to evacuate us.”
Ghoubatini told CNN early Wednesday afternoon — before the Prime Minister’s remarks — that Tunis’ main court was also evacuated.
“The situation is confused,” Ghoubatini said. “The police are trying to protect the hostages.”
Where Arab Spring took root
Tunisia is where the Arab Spring — anti-government protests that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa and sparked revolutions in some of those countries — took root in December 2010. A poor 26-year-old man set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building that month, after police confiscated his vegetable cart, sparking protests.
Then-President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled the next month, and in October 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections in the country’s modern history, seating a new parliament.
This came at the cusp of a wave of revolutions around the region in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria. Many of those countries have been plagued by violence and instability since.
In many ways, Tunisia has been the exception — with The Economist going so far as to name it “Country of the Year” for 2014.
“The idealism engendered by the Arab spring has mostly sunk in bloodshed and extremism, with a shining exception: Tunisia,” the magazine wrote. “… Its economy is struggling and its polity is fragile; but Tunisia’s pragmatism and moderation have nurtured hope in a wretched region and a troubled world.”
Tunisia adopted a new constitution in 2014. And in December, longtime politician Beji Caid Essebsi won a runoff election with about 55% of the vote, beating outgoing President Moncef Marzouki’s 44%, state-run media reported.
That was seen as a milestone vote. But it did not mean that Tunisia wasn’t without its troubles — with its economy or with militants.
Essebsi will address the nation Wednesday, he said on Twitter, without specifying a time.
Political turnover in Tunisia
While it’s been more peaceful than other countries, Tunisia has seen its share of violence and political turmoil.
There was cautious optimism after October 2011 elections — the country’s first since its independence in 1956 — that involved 60 political parties and thousands of independent candidates vying for seats in the country’s new Constitutional Assembly.
The moderate Islamist Ennahda party won a majority of seats in that vote, and Marzouki became President.
The next two years saw some crackdowns on media freedom, with the ruling party publicly shaming and threatening journalists who opposed moves to make every media outlet state-run, wrote Alaya Allani, a history professor at Tunisia’s Manouba University, in September 2013.
And, he wrote, the Ennahda party had tried to insert the concept of criminalizing blasphemy into the nation’s constitution and to force a certain kind of strict religious discourse in mosques.
The 2013 assassinations of two opposition leaders outside their homes ultimately expedited the Ennahda party’s fall.
The first — the February 2013 killing of Chokri Belaid — led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. The next — the July 2013 slaying of Mohammed Al-Brahmi — spurred the governing party to hand over power to an independent caretaker until after the forthcoming elections.