A gunman disguised as a tourist opened fire at a Tunisian hotel on Friday with a rifle he had hidden in an umbrella, killing 39 people including Britons, Germans and Belgians as they lounged at the beach in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
After pulling out the weapon, the assailant strolled through the hotel grounds, opening fire left and right at the pool and beach, reloading his weapon several times and tossing an explosive, witnesses said.
Terrified tourists ran for cover after the gunfire and an explosion erupted at the Imperial Marhaba in Sousse, 140 km (90 miles) south of the capital Tunis, before police shot the gunman dead, witnesses and security officials said.
The bodies of several tourists lay crumbled where they fell in the sand, covered with yellow towels and blankets among the plastic white sunbeds. Blood smeared stone steps leading from the hotel main area."This was always a safe place but today was horror," said an Irish tourist who gave only his first name, Anthony. "He started on the beach and went to the lobby, killing in cold blood."
A body is covered after an attack on a Tunisian beach. (AP Photo)
Olivia Leathley, 24, said she saw a woman whose husband had been shot in the stomach in front of her. "She got dragged away by hotel reps trying to get her to safety but she was a complete mess. She was in hysterics. All she said was that he'd been shot and that he was there bleeding on the beach and he was just saying, 'I love you, I love you', and then his eyes rolled back into his head."
A broken glass window of the Imperiale Marhaba hotel is seen after a gunman opened fire at the beachside hotel. (REUTERS photo)
"Someone was firing a gun, and then I looked at my wife and she got up and ran, and as I turned a bullet just hit me in my arm, and I just ran to the sea," a man told BBC television.
The attack took place during the holy Muslim month of Ramzan, on a day in which a decapitated body daubed with Arabic writing was found in France, a suicide bomber killed two dozen people at a mosque in Kuwait and at least 145 civilians were reported killed by Islamic State militants in northern Syria.In a statement on social media, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Tunisian attack. It had urged its followers to step up assaults during Ramadan.
Bodies of tourists shot dead by a gunman lie near a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. (REUTERS photo)
Ellie Makin, from Ripon in northern England, told ITV television,"All I saw was a gun and an umbrella being dropped. Then he started firing to the right hand side of us. If he had fired to the left I don't know what would have happened, but we were very lucky."
Police officers control the crowd (rear) while surrounding a man (front C) suspected to be involved in opening fire on a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. (REUTERS Photo)
An undated image made available on Twitter by the Tunisian branch of the Islamic State (IS) group reportedly shows the gunman who carried out the bloody attack on the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in the Tunisian resort city of Sousse.
The IS group identified the man by the nom de guerre of Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani.
According to Tunisia’s secretary of state for security, Rafik Chelly, the presumed gunman of the massacre in the Tunisian seaside resort that killed nearly 40 people is identified as Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui. AFP PHOTO
The body of the attacker Seifeddine Rezgui lies on the ground in the costal town of Sousse, Tunisia. (AP Photo)
"All of a sudden, from the level just below the lobby there was a huge sound of loads of machine gun fire and one of the reps just said 'run'. I was crying and we heard the machine gun fire and it was so loud and it seemed like it was just behind us, it seemed so close." Leathley told AFP.
Tourists sit in a bar after the mass shooting. (AFP Photo)
"We just saw panic, everyone just got up and fled as soon as we realised it was gunfire. A guy ran up into the hotel and started shooting again and everyone fled. He was just below us, if we'd have walked down the stairs we'd have met him halfway. I ran to a room upstairs with somebody and their kids and we hid," Ellie Makin told ITV television.
People donate their blood at the Sahloul hospital. (AFP Photo)
Tourists leave Tunisia at the Enfidha International airport. (AFP Photo)
The head of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel says everyone is being vacated from the hotel.
Mohammed Becheur said Saturday that before the attack, 75% of the hotel's 370 rooms were booked, one of the highest occupancy rates in the resort city of Sousse.
"We may have zero clients today, but we will keep our staff," he said outside the hotel a day after the rampage by a lone gunman. "This summer will be hard but we are confident for the long term."
Employees at the nearby Mouradia Palace hotel expressed fear that they would soon be out of jobs as the attack comes right at the start of high season.
Tourists comfort each other after the mass shooting. (AFP Photo)
A rose lies on the beach of the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Port el Kantaoui. (AFP Photo)
"Only when you could start hearing bullets whizzing around your ear do you realise it was something a lot more serious than firecrackers. There was a mass exodus off the beach. You could see quite quickly the panic that was starting to ensue," product manager Gary Pine told Sky News television.
"This is a catastrophe for the economy," Tourism Minister Salma Loumi said. "Our losses will be great, but the loss of human life was even greater."
Since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has been praised for its peaceful democratic transition bringing free elections and a new constitution seen as a model for the region.
But the country has also struggled with the rise of Islamist movements as ultra-conservative preachers took advantage of the upheaval and young democracy to take over mosques and spread their hardline message.
Several thousand Tunisian jihadists have left the country to fight in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring Libya, where some have set up jihadist training camps and promised to return to attack their homeland.