Attackers opened fire at a major museum in Tunisia’s capital, gunning down 17 tourists as dozens more sprinted to safety.
At least 21 people in all were killed, including two gunmen, but some attackers may have escaped, authorities said.
The attack on the famed National Bardo Museum in Tunis was the first on a tourist site in years in Tunisia, a shaky young democracy that has struggled to keep Islamic extremist violence at bay.
It was not clear who the attackers were but security forces immediately flooded the area. Tunisia’s parliament building, next to the museum, was evacuated.
Private television station Wataniya showed masked Tunisian security forces escorting dozens of tourists up nearby steps and away from the danger, as armed security forces pointed guns towards an adjacent building.
Many elderly people, apparently tourists, ran in panic to safety, including at least one couple carrying two children.
Tunisian prime minister Habib Essid said 21 people were killed: 17 tourists, two gunmen, a Tunisian security officer and a Tunisian cleaning woman. He said the dead tourists came from Italy, Poland, Germany and Spain.
He said two or three of the attackers remained at large.
Several other people were reported wounded in the attack, including three Poles and at least two Italians. The Italian foreign ministry said 100 other Italians had been taken to a secure location.
Some of the Italians at the museum were believed to have been passengers aboard the Costa Fascinosa, a cruise liner making a seven-day trip of the western Mediterranean that had docked in Tunis.
Ship owner Costa Crociere confirmed that some of its 3,161 passengers were visiting the capital and that a Bardo tour was on the itinerary, but said it could not confirm how many, if any, passengers were in the museum at the time.
The cruise ship recalled all the passengers to the ship and was in touch with local authorities and the Italian foreign ministry.
Wednesday’s attack was a strong blow to Tunisia’s efforts to revive its crucial tourism industry.
The National Bardo Museum, built in a 15th-century palace, is the largest museum in Tunisia and houses one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics among its 8,000 works. The museum is near the North African nation’s parliament, four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) from the city centre. A new wing with contemporary architecture was built as part of a 2009 renovation, doubling the surface area.
“It is not by chance that today’s terrorism affects a country that represents hope for the Arab world. The hope for peace, the hope for stability, the hope for democracy. This hope must live,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement minutes after the crisis ended.
Speaking at the Louvre museum to call for international efforts to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria against extremist destruction, French president Francois Hollande said he had called the Tunisian president to offer support and solidarity.
“Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned,” Mr Hollande said.
Tunisia recently completed a rocky road to democracy after overthrowing its authoritarian president in 2011, seen by many as the start of the so-called Arab Spring. The country has been more stable than other countries in the region, but has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists in recent years, including some linked to Islamic State. It also has extremists linked to al Qaida’s North Africa arm who occasionally target Tunisian security forces.
A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits – some 3,000, according to government estimates – have joined IS fighters in Syria and Iraq.
The American embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012, seriously damaging the embassy grounds and an adjoining American school. Four of the assailants were killed.
Overall, though, the violence that Tunisia has seen in recent years has been largely focused on security forces, not foreigners or tourist sites.
The attack comes the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighbouring Libya of a leading suspect in Tunisian terror attacks and in the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.
Ahmed Rouissi gained the nickname of the “black box of terrorism”. The information on his death was made public by security officials giving evidence in parliament and cited by the official TAP news agency.
Libya, which has devolved into chaos, is a source of major concern for Tunisia.
Also a major worry is the Mount Chaambi area on the border with Algeria where al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has reportedly been helping a Tunisian group which has killed numerous soldiers.