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19 killed, including tourists, in attack on Tunisian museum

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TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) – Gunmen killed 19 people, including a Tunisian security officer, at a well-known Tunisian museum in the country’s capital.

On Wednesday, authorities were called to the Bardo Museum after two gunmen dressed in military gear opened fire on visitors.

The museum is linked to where the nation’s parliament meets and is an area popular with tourists.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid says two attackers were killed by security forces, ending a hostage siege at the museum.

However, they are still looking for three other gunmen involved in the “cowardly” terrorist attack.

“It’s a cowardly attack mainly targeting the economy of Tunis,” Essid said. “We should unite to defend our country.”

Polish, Italian, German and Spanish tourists are among those killed, Essid said, with another 20 tourists plus two Tunisians wounded in the attack.

While Essid didn’t specify where the attackers came from, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui called them Islamists in remarks on national radio.

Recently, the government has seen several apparent political assassinations and has been battling a jihadist presence in the Chaambi Mountains.

And in February, the country’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of about 100 alleged extremists, and published a video allegedly showing the group possessed a formula for making explosives and a photograph of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Up to 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria, more than any other country, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London.

Museum: ‘A jewel of Tunisian heritage’

The museum is housed in a 19th century palace and describes itself as “a jewel of Tunisian heritage.” Its exhibits showcase Tunisian art, culture and history, and boasts a collection of mosaics, including one of the poet Virgil, as well as marble sculptures, furniture, jewels and other items.

As much as its place in Tunisian culture, the museum is significant for its location — right next to the building that houses the North African nation’s parliament.

That government building was evacuated shortly after noon Wednesday, Tunisian lawmaker Sayida Ounissi said on Twitter.

Sabrine Ghoubatini, a Tunisian lawmaker, said that an administrator interrupted a committee meeting to tell everyone “to lay down on the ground because there was an exchange of fire between terrorists and police. So we laid down on the ground, and they began to evacuate us.”

Political turnover in Tunisia

While it’s been more peaceful than other countries, Tunisia has seen its share of violence and political turmoil.

There was cautious optimism after October 2011 elections — the country’s first since its independence in 1956 — that involved 60 political parties and thousands of independent candidates vying for seats in the country’s new Constitutional Assembly.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party won a majority of seats in that vote, and Marzouki became President.

The next two years saw some crackdowns on media freedom, with the ruling party publicly shaming and threatening journalists who opposed moves to make every media outlet state-run,wrote Alaya Allani, a history professor at Tunisia’s Manouba University, in September 2013.

And, he wrote, the Ennahda party had tried to insert the concept of criminalizing blasphemy into the nation’s constitution and to force a certain kind of strict religious discourse in mosques.

The 2013 assassinations of two opposition leaders outside their homes ultimately expedited the Ennahda party’s fall.

The first — the February 2013 killing of Chokri Belaid — led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. The next — the July 2013 slaying of Mohammed Al-Brahmi — spurred the governing party to hand over power to an independent caretaker until after the forthcoming elections.

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