17 tourists killed in attack at museum in Tunisia

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TUNIS, Tunisia(CNN)  — At least 19 people — most of them tourists — were killed in an attack Wednesday at the Bardo museum in Tunisia’s capital, Tunisian Prime Minister Habid Essid said. Two attackers were also killed, while three attackers are at large, according to Essid.

Ambulances removed people from the Bardo Museum in Tunis as helicopters flew overhead, journalist Yasmine Ryan told CNN from the scene. Some gunfire could be heard, and video showed men and women running away for safety.

Mohamed Ali Aroui, an Interior Ministry spokesman who detailed the deaths at the Tunisian museum, called the attackers Islamists in remarks on national radio. The Interior Ministry said there was a hostage situation.

While Tunisia hasn’t had the same level of violence as other nations in the region that were part of the Arab Spring uprising, like neighboring Libya, it hasn’t been immune to it either.

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 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.

Map: Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia.

 As much as its place in Tunisian culture, the museum is significant for its location — in the heart of Tunis and physically linked 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.

This revelation came after Reuters reported, citing local radio, that three gunmen attacked the building, and that gunmen also may have taken a hostages at the nearby museum.

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.