A Tunisian police officer shot dead four people at Africa’s oldest synagogue in an attack Tuesday that sparked panic during an annual Jewish pilgrimage on the island of Djerba.
He gunned down two visitors, including a French citizen, and two fellow officers before he was shot dead himself, the interior ministry said.
Another four visitors and five police officers were wounded in the attack, the first on foreign visitors to Tunisia since 2015 and the first on the pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue since a suicide truck bombing killed 21 people in 2002.
The Tunisian foreign ministry identified the two visitors killed as a 30-year-old Tunisian and a French national, aged 42. It did not release their names.
The assailant had first shot dead a colleague and taken his ammunition before opening fire at the synagogue, sparking panic among the hundreds of visitors there.
“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” the interior ministry said, refraining from referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.
The French government “condemns this heinous act in the strongest terms,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller had also condemned the shooting rampage.
“The United States deplores the attack in Tunisia coinciding with the annual Jewish pilgrimage that draws faithful to the El Ghriba Synagogue from around the world,” he said on Twitter.
“We express condolences to the Tunisian people and commend the rapid action of Tunisian security forces.”
– Dwindling Jewish community –
According to organisers, more than 5,000 Jewish faithful, mostly from overseas, participated in this year’s event.
The annual pilgrimage only resumed in 2022 after two years of pandemic-related suspension.
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 still live — mainly on Djerba — compared with around 100,000 before independence in 1956.
Pilgrims travel from Europe, the United States and Israel to take part, although their numbers have dropped since the deadly bombing in 2002.
Tuesday’s shooting came as the tourism industry in Tunisia has finally rebounded from pandemic-era lows, as well as from the aftereffects of a pair of attacks in Tunis and Sousse in 2015 that killed dozens of 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 the fight against terrorism in recent years.
The Ghriba attack also comes as Tunisia endures a severe financial crisis that has worsened since President Kais Saied seized power in July 2021 and rammed through a constitution that gave his office sweeping powers and neutered parliament.