July 2, 2015 / 7:43 AM / 2 years ago

Tunisia hunts for Libya-trained suspects after hotel attack

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian authorities were on Thursday hunting further suspects in the Sousse hotel attack identified by officials as part of a group trained in a Libyan jihadist camp alongside gunmen who carried out a massacre at a Tunis museum.

National guard members patrol at the beach near the Imperiale Marhaba hotel, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Thirty-eight foreigners, most British holidaymakers, were killed in Friday’s attack before the gunman was shot by police. In March, two gunmen killed 21 people at the Tunis Bardo museum, before they were also shot.

Authorities say suspects in both attacks were trained in military tactics across the border in Libya, where several Islamist armed groups have profited from the country’s political chaos to expand their influence and set up base.

“This is a group who were trained in Libya, and who had the same objective. Two attacked the Bardo and one attacked Sousse,” Lazhar Akremi, minister for parliamentary relations, told reporters late on Wednesday. “Police are hunting for two more.”

The minister said a total of 12 people had already been arrested since Friday’s attack, the worst such massacre in the North African country’s modern history. Four suspects have been released.

Islamic State militants, controlling large parts of Iraq and Syria, have claimed responsibility for the Tunisian attack. But authorities say the gunman was not on any police watchlist for jihadist fighters.

LIBYAN LINK

Four years after its “Arab Spring” uprising against Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia had emerged as a model for peaceful democratic change. But it is also struggling with the rise of ultra-conservative Islamist groups, some of them violent.

Authorities had blamed a local group Okba Ibn Nafaa, which has in the past been more associated with al Qaeda, for the Bardo attack. But Islamic State has also inspired so-called “Lone Wolf” attacks and attracted younger fighters to split from other North African groups.

More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other groups in Iraq, Syria and in Libya, where a conflict between two rival governments has allowed Islamist militants to seek refuge and gain ground.

Tunisian authorities say the Sousse and Bardo museum attackers all received military training late last year in a jihadist camp over the border in lawless southern Libya.

The gunmen in the Bardo and Sousse attacks were also radicalized either in local mosques or through contact with jihadist groups online, authorities said. All three mostly kept their new violent beliefs from family and friends.

To counter jihadist recruitment after the Sousse attack, Tunisian authorities say they are closing down 80 mosques that are either illegal or are known to be used by radical imams preaching hardline messages.

Reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Ralph Boulton; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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