WATCH: Gunmen opened fire on tourists, mostly from foreign countries, at the popular Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital. Mike Armstrong reports.
TUNIS, Tunisia – The radical Islamic State group claimed responsibility Thursday for the attack on a famed Tunis museum that left 23 people dead and scores of tourists wounded, and upended the country’s struggling tourism industry.
Defying the extremists, hundreds of Tunisians rallied Thursday at the National Bardo Museum, the site of the attack, stepping around trails of blood and broken glass to proclaim their solidarity with the victims and with Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. One person carried a sign saying “Tunisia is bloodied but still standing.”
Tunisian security forces arrested nine people, five with alleged direct connections to Wednesday’s attack by two gunmen who were later slain by police, the president’s office said. The other four suspects arrested in the central part of the country were part of a cell supporting those involved in the attack, the statement said.
Prime Minister Habib Essid told France’s RTL radio that Tunisia was working with other countries to learn more about the slain attackers, identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui. He said Laabidi had been flagged to the intelligence agency, although not for “anything special.”
WATCH: Injured people were taken to hospital after an attack at a Tunisian museum.
The attack was the worst at a tourist site in Tunisia in more than a decade and prompted a leading Italian cruise ship line to announce it was cancelling all stops in the North African nation indefinitely.
The deaths of so many tourists will create massive trouble for Tunisia’s tourism industry, which attracts thousands of foreigners every year to the country’s Mediterranean beaches, desert oases and ancient Roman ruins – and which had just started to recover after years of decline. Two major cruise ships whose passengers were among the victims quickly left the port of Tunis early Thursday, leaving behind grieving family members and slain passengers.
Razor wire ringed the museum entrance Thursday and security forces guarded major thoroughfares in Tunis, the capital.
Culture Minister Latifa Lakhdar gave a defiant press conference in the museum, where blood trails still stained the ground.
“They are targeting knowledge. They are targeting science. They are targeting reason. They are targeting history. They are targeting memory, because all these things mean nothing in their eyes,” she told reporters. “There is only their reactionary, very backward and sclerotic ideology.”
Later in the afternoon, authorities opened the gates of the museum for a rally in defiance of the bloodshed. About 500 people held a moment of silence amid the shattered glass before singing Tunisia’s national anthem.
WATCH: French President Francois Hollande expressed grief and solidarity over the Tunisia shootings.
Participants included black-robed judges and lawyers, families with children and teenagers swathed in the red-and-white Tunisian flag. Many also carried bouquets of flowers for the victims.
Tunisians also attended the funeral of security force member Aymen Morjen, one of the victims.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in an audio and written statement on jihadi forums and described the museum housing Roman artifacts as a “den of infidels and vice.” It celebrated the two attackers as “knights” armed with assault rifles and grenades and promised further strikes.
Tunisia has faced scattered attacks by extremists for the past several years, though nothing on this scale. None of the country’s main militant groups had previously pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Geoff Porter, a North Africa security analyst, said it was likely the IS group had perhaps inspired the operation but not actually planned it.
“I think it’s probably taking credit for something it may not have played a role in,” he told the AP.
According to survivors and witnesses, two or more gunmen attacked the museum wielding assault rifles and began gunning down tourists in front of a row of about 10 buses. The attackers then charged inside to take hostages before being killed in a firefight with security forces.
Tourist Bruna Scherini described a scene of panic when shots rang out as museum-goers were admiring the Bardo’s renowned Roman-era mosaics.
“Suddenly we started to hear the gunshots so we all tried to escape and all of us tried to save ourselves as best we could,” she told Sky TG24 from her hospital bed. “We tried to hide behind the exhibits and in the corners where there was a little hiding place.”
WATCH: Tunisian authorities arrest 5 in connection with museum attack
A Spanish man and a pregnant Spanish woman who survived hid in the museum all night in fear. Spain’s foreign minister said police searched overnight before the pair, Juan Carlos Sanchez and Cristina Rubio, were found Thursday morning by security forces.
The Health Ministry said the death toll in the attack rose Thursday to 23 people, including 20 foreign tourists, with almost 50 people wounded. Three Tunisians were killed, including two attackers. All the injuries came from bullet wounds.
Dr. Samar Samoud of the health ministry said six of the dead foreigners remained unidentified. She listed the rest of the foreign victims as three Japanese women, three French citizens, a retired Spanish couple, an Australian man, a Colombian woman, a British woman, a Polish man, a Belgian woman and an Italian citizen.
The Costa Crociere cruise line said there were four Italians and a Russian among the dead. It was not immediately clear whether those were among the dead not yet identified by the health ministry.
The slain Spanish couple was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. It was the first time they had travelled outside Spain, the Spanish foreign minister said. Their two children were flying to Tunis to retrieve their parents’ bodies.
One victim, identified in Japanese media as 66-year-old Machiyo Narusawa, was among a group of 70 Japanese tourists, mostly retirees who had travelled from Tokyo.
A Polish military plane arrived in Tunis on Thursday morning to bring back Polish tourists who wanted to return home. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said some people from Poland were still missing and Polish prosecutors said they will open their own investigation into the attack.
The Costa Crociere cruise line announced it was cancelling all upcoming stops in Tunisian ports following the attack and will find alternate ports of call, which are still being defined.
Tunisian legislator Bochra Belhaj Hmida, of the secular majority party Nida Tunis, told the AP that about 2,000 suspected terrorists are believed to be in Tunisia, many of whom joined extremists in Iraq or Syria then returned home.
“They are in a situation of being lone wolves,” she said, “where each of them is free to do the actions they want.”
Tunisians overthrew their dictator in 2011 and kicked off the Arab Spring revolutions that spread across the region. While the uprising built a new democracy, the North African country has also struggled with economic problems and extremism, though violence had not previously targeted tourist sites.
“This new act of barbarity sounds an alarm,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. “It announces that the world has changed.”