Tunisia said Thursday that it has arrested 23 suspects in connection with last week’s jihadist massacre at the country’s national museum.
“Twenty-three suspects including a woman have been arrested as part of a terrorist cell” involved in the attack, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli told journalists.
Those arrested were all Tunisians, and they accounted for “80 percent of this cell,” he said.
Another Tunisian, two Moroccans and an Algerian suspected of being members of the cell were on the run.
The Tunisian fugitive, Maher Ben Mouldi Kaidi, is alleged to have provided the automatic weapons to the two gunmen who killed 21 people — including 20 foreign tourists — at the Bardo museum in Tunis on March 18.
The head of the cell was among those arrested and identified as Mohamed Emine Guebli.
But the minister said the operation was organised by an Algerian jihadist named Lokmane Abou Sakhr, one of the leaders of the Al-Qaeda-linked Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the main Tunisian armed group active along the border with Algeria.
Officials called into question the claim of responsibility for the attack from Al-Qaeda’s jihadist rival, the Islamic State group.
“Islamic State praised this attack for propaganda and publicity. But on the ground it was Okba Ibn Nafaa which belongs to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that organised and committed this crime,” interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told AFP.
AQIM has not responded since IS claimed responsibility for the attack, which would be its first in Tunisia.
– March ‘against terrorism’ –
Tunisian authorities have blamed Okba Ibn Nafaa for a series of ambushes and attacks against security forces that have left some 60 dead since the end of 2012.
The 23 suspects were to appear in court later Thursday, Gharsalli said, without providing further details.
The minister said eight of the foreign tourists were killed as they got off a bus in front of the museum and 12 others inside the building. A Tunisian policeman was also killed.
The attack was the worst on foreigners in Tunisia since an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a synagogue killed 21 people on the island of Djerba in 2002.
Authorities are organising an international march “against terrorism” in Tunis on Sunday, similar to the one in Paris that followed the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly and a kosher supermarket.
French President Francois Hollande is among those who have announced they will attend.
President Beji Caid Essebsi has called for a huge turnout.
“I am calling on all Tunisians young and old… to take part in this march to show Tunisia’s strength and its willingness to fight terrorism,” he said in a televised address.
The culture ministry said the Bardo museum would receive visits by school groups on Friday and then open to the general public for the day on Monday.
The attack dealt a heavy blow to Tunisia’s vital tourism industry as the country looks to rebuild its economy.
The birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutionary movement, Tunisia has seen an upsurge in Islamic extremism since overthrowing longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
But Tunisia has taken pride in forming a democratic government since the Arab Spring — in marked contrast to countries such as Egypt, Libya and Yemen.