Tunisia’s president on Wednesday blamed “criminals” seeking to harm the tourism sector for a synagogue shooting on the island of Djerba that killed six people in the country’s deadliest attack in years.
The attacker, a National Guard member, killed a colleague at a naval installation on Tuesday and drove to the synagogue where an annual Jewish festival was taking place, opening fire on police and visitors before he was shot dead.
Two Jewish cousins, one French-Tunisian and the other Israeli-Tunisian, were killed, along with one police officer who died at the scene and another in hospital on Wednesday.
Four more police were injured, one critically, hospital sources said, along with four other visitors.
“The goal was to sow the seeds of discord and to hit the tourist season and the state,” said Saied, offering condolences to the families of those killed and recovery wishes to the injured.
He made no reference to the shooter’s targeting of the Jewish community or to antisemitism and did not call the shooting terrorism, a term he has sometimes used to describe the work of his political opponents since he seized most powers in 2021.
Saied said Tunisia was “a land of tolerance and peaceful coexistence”.
Israel, the United States and France offered condolences.
Worshippers attending the pilgrimage described a scene of panic after gunshots rang out, as people tried to hide in different rooms of the synagogue.
“People were happy and dancing until we heard a lot of gunfire. Everyone ran away… some hid in my office and others in the other rooms. There was lots of fear,” said Peres Trabelsi, head of Djerba’s Jewish community.
The attacker arrived on a quad bike and was wearing body armour, said Rene Trabelsi, Tunisia’s former tourism minister who organised the pilgrimage, adding that the two cousins had tried to hide behind a bus outside the synagogue.
“We heard the shots and knew it was related to an attack,” he said, adding that he had been inside the synagogue with his family when the shooting began.
The pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue regularly draws hundreds of Jews from Europe and Israel to Djerba, located just off the coast about 500 km (300 miles) from the capital Tunis.
The pilgrimage has had tight security since al Qaeda militants attacked the synagogue in 2002 with a truck bomb, killing 21 Western tourists. Mainly Muslim Tunisia is home to one of North Africa’s largest Jewish communities with about 1,800 members.
Any impact on Tunisia’s tourism sector, a major source of foreign currency, will be closely watched in a year when the government is seeking financial help to avert a crisis in public finances.
The tourism business was badly hit by major attacks in 2015 that killed scores of Western tourists and had barely recovered before the COVID pandemic in 2019 and 2020. Economic woes have driven a big exodus of Tunisians to Europe.