Tunis: Tunisia, already destabilised by a political crisis, tightened security on Thursday after two failed suicide bombings that dealt a blow to the country’s vital tourism industry.
Only the suicide bomber was killed Wednesday in one attack on a beachside hotel in Sousse, and the security forces thwarted another attempted suicide attack soon thereafter in neighbouring Monastir.
Tunisian special forces later arrested “five terrorists with direct links to the assailants” in Sousse and Monastir, the interior ministry said.
Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Laroui said those behind the attacks belonged to Ansar Al Sharia, Tunisia’s main Salafist movement, which the authorities have designated a “terrorist organisation” with ties to Al Qaida.
On Thursday police checks were considerably strengthened in and around Sousse, while tourists in the nearby resort of Al 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 a French tourist who identified herself as 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.
In the capital Tunis, police beefed up their presence on 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 have fuelled fears about the future of the country’s tourism sector, still struggling from the 2011 revolution that resulted in a 30-percent drop in revenues.
One newspaper said the attacks meant “terrorism is now targeting tourism.”
“The target now is the beating heart of the Tunisian economy,” read the editorial in the Une le Temps daily.
But Mohammad 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.
The presidency insisted the attacks, which have yet to be claimed, would not “derail” the democratic transition following the 2011 revolution, which kicked off the Arab Spring.
A national dialogue is under way between the ruling Islamist party Al Nahda and the opposition to end a months-long political crisis sparked by the July assassination of opposition politician Mohammad Brahmi by suspected jihadists.
As part of a roadmap agreed by political leaders to break the stalemate, Al Nadha is to hand over power to an interim government made up of independents.
Al Nadha’s veteran leader Rashed 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 four-star Riadh Palms hotel in Sousse, the interior ministry said.
According to witnesses, 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, 20 kilometres (12 miles) away along the coast.
The ministry said special forces arrested five members of Ansar al-Sharia, an Al Qaida-linked Salafist movement, over the attacks.
Since the 2011 revolution that toppled Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, Tunisia has been rocked by violence blamed on radical Islamists suppressed under the former dictator, including the killings this year of Brahmi and another opposition MP.
Wednesday’s failed suicide bombings are the first in Tunisia since 2002, when an attack claimed by Al Qaida killed 21 people at the ancient Ghriba synagogue on Djerba.
Al Nadha, 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 Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and says it lacks the resources to combat them.