Tunisian authorities are investigating Wednesday a shooting of a police officer that claimed five lives and sparked widespread panic during a Jewish pilgrimage to Africa’s oldest synagogue.
Security forces have set up a tight cordon around the site on the island of Djerba as officials investigate whether Tuesday’s shooting was a random killing or an anti-Semitic terrorist attack.
The police officer first killed a colleague and took his ammunition, then went to the Ghriba synagogue and opened fire, causing panic on the last day of the annual pilgrimage.
Wearing his uniform and bulletproof vest, he shot dead two guests and injured two others. In the ensuing clash, he also injured six policemen, two of whom died later, hospital sources said.
The assailant shot himself dead, the interior ministry said, without being identified.
“Without the rapid intervention of the security forces, there would have been a wider massacre” because hundreds of people would have been at the site, said Rene Trabelsi, a former tourism minister, speaking on Mosaique FM radio.
Trabelsi, who was at the synagogue during the shooting, named the dead guests as Tunisian Aviel Haddad, 30, and his France-based cousin, dual national Benjamin Haddad, 42.
The killing was Tunisia’s first deadly attack on foreigners since 2015, and the first to target the Ghriba pilgrimage since a suicide truck bombing that killed 21 people in 2002.
“Investigations are ongoing to clarify the motives for this cowardly aggression,” said the interior ministry, which avoided referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.
“France condemns this heinous act in the strongest terms,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller earlier said: “The United States deplores the attack in Tunisia that coincided with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws worshipers to the El Ghriba Synagogue from whole world.
“We express our condolences to the people of Tunisia and commend the swift action of the Tunisian security forces.”
According to the organizers, more than 5,000 Jewish faithful, mostly from abroad, participated in this year’s event.
The annual pilgrimage will only resume in 2022 after a two-year suspension related to the pandemic.
Dwindling Jewish community
Coming between Passover and Shavuot, the pilgrimage to Ghriba is at the heart of Jewish tradition in Tunisia, where only about 1,500 members of the faith are still alive – mainly in Djerba – compared to about 100,000 before. independence 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 comes as Tunisia’s tourism industry is finally recovering from pandemic-era lows, as well as from the effects of a pair of attacks in Tunis and Sousse in 2015 that killed dozens. foreign holidaymakers.
Tunisia suffered a sharp rise in Islamist militancy after the Arab Spring ousted longtime despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, but authorities say they have made significant progress in dealing with -fight against terrorism in recent years.
The Ghriba attack also comes as Tunisia suffers a severe financial crisis that has worsened since President Kais Saied seized power in July 2021 and scrapped a constitution that gave him his office and powers. to sweep and neutered parliament.