TUNIS – A Tunisian police officer shot dead four people Tuesday in an attack on Africa’s oldest synagogue that sparked panic during an annual Jewish pilgrimage to the island of Djerba. The interior ministry said the officer shot dead two visitors and two colleagues, including a French national, and shot himself dead. Tunisia’s TAP news agency reported on Wednesday, citing hospital sources, that one of the nine wounded in the attack, a security officer, later died of his injuries.
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Four other visitors and four police officers were wounded in the attack, the first of foreign visitors to Tunisia since 2015 and the first of the pilgrimage to the Ghariba synagogue since a suicide truck bombing in 2002 killed 21 people.
Tunisia’s foreign ministry identified the two dead visitors as a 30-year-old Tunisian and a French national, both 42 years old. They did not release their names.
The assailant first shot dead a colleague and took his ammunition before opening fire on the synagogue, sparking panic among hundreds of onlookers.
“Investigations are continuing to shed light on the motive for this cowardly attack,” the interior ministry said, refraining from calling the shooting a terrorist attack.
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Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said the French government “condemns in the strongest terms this heinous act.”
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller also condemned the shooting spree, saying on Twitter that the US “condemns the attack in Tunisia that coincides with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful from around the world to the El Ghiba Synagogue.”
“We extend our condolences to the people of Tunisia and appreciate the swift action of the Tunisian security forces,” Miller added.
The United States condemned the attacks in Tunisia to coincide with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful from around the world to the El Ghiba synagogue. We offer our condolences to the Tunisian people and appreciate the swift action of the Tunisian security forces.
— Matthew Miller (@StateDeptSpox) May 10, 2023
More than 5,000 Jewish faithful, mostly foreigners, attended this year’s event, according to organizers. The annual pilgrimage only resumed in 2022, after two years of a coronavirus pandemic-related suspension.
Between Passover and Shavuot, the Ghariba pilgrimage is at the heart of Jewish heritage in Tunisia, where about 1,500 members of the faith still live – mainly in Djerba – compared to about 100,000 before the country gained independence from France in 1956.
Pilgrims travel from Europe, the United States and Israel to take part, although their numbers have dwindled since the deadly bombings in 2002.
Tuesday’s shooting came as Tunisia’s tourism industry finally bounced back from pandemic-era lows, as well as from a pair of tourism impacts. Attacks in Tunis and Sousse in 2015 That killed dozens of foreign holidaymakers.
Islamist militancy has surged in Tunisia since the Arab Spring ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, but authorities say they have made significant progress in the fight against terrorism in recent years.
The Ghariba attack comes as Tunisia endures a severe financial crisis that has worsened since President Kais Said took power in July 2021 and pushed through a constitution that gave his office sweeping powers and neutralized parliament.