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Tunisia attack death toll rises as first arrests are made

Tunisia has arrested the first suspects in connection with an attack on a museum in the capital. The prime minister says two gunmen killed in Tunis have also been identified.

On Thursday, Tunisia's government announced that police had made the first arrests in an attack on a museum in the capital that killed at least 20 people.

"The security forces were able to arrest four people directly linked to the operation and five suspected of having ties to the cell," the president's office announced in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said investigators had identified the two gunmen killed by security forces after they attacked a group of tourists in the National Bardo Museum in Tunis.

Speaking to France's RTL radio, Essid named the gunmen as Yassine Abidi and Hatem Khachnaoui and said that Abidi had been known to police. However, "for the moment we cannot say if they belong to one or another terrorist organizations," he said, without providing further information. Separately, a spokesman for the country's interior ministry said the museum attackers were "probably" Tunisian nationals.

The death toll from the four-hour siege rose on Thursday, but news agencies gave conflicting figures, ranging between 20 and 25.

The Associated Press (AP) cited Health Minister Said Aidi as putting the death toll at 23, including 18 foreigners. Nearly 50 others were wounded in the attack.

Most of those killed appeared to have been European tourists, with an official at the hospital where many victims were taken saying they had confirmed the identities of Spanish, British, Belgian and French nationals. Also among those identified were victims from Japan, Australia and Colombia.

Spaniards found alive

There was some good news, with the discovery in the morning of two Spanish tourists who survived the attack after hiding from the gunmen and spending the entire night in the museum.

The attack is expected to have a significant negative impact on Tunisia's lucrative tourist industry, and the first signs of this also came on Thursday, with Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises, whose passengers were among those killed, announcing that their ships would no longer stop in Tunis. A statement issued by Costa Cruises on Thursday said the company would "cancel all the forthcoming stops our ships are due to make in Tunisia," but did not say how long the measure would remain in place.

On Wednesday evening, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi used a nationally televised address to make a pledge to hunt down the alleged perpetrators who remained at large.

"We will find more ways and equipment for the army to wipe out these barbarous groups for good," Essebsi said. "I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us," he added. "We will fight them without mercy to our last breath."

pfd, mkg/lw (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)

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