A gun attack on an old Tunisian synagogue has killed 5 people
TUNIS, Tunisia — The number of people killed in a gun attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba during an annual Jewish pilgrimage has risen to five, Tunisia's TAP news agency said Wednesday. The victims were two Jewish pilgrims and three Tunisian police guards.
A police guard who had been hospitalized after Tuesday's attack died from his injuries on Wednesday, according to a medical official cited by TAP. Four other members of the security forces remain hospitalized in Djerba, including one in critical condition, according to TAP.
The motive for the attack was still under investigation.
Israeli authorities and Tunisian authorities and the family identified the civilian victims as cousins: Aviel Haddad, 30, who held dual Tunisian and Israeli citizenship, and Benjamin Haddad, 42, who was French.
Four civilians were also injured, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said. The attacker was slain by security guards.
In a statement, the French foreign ministry expressed its "deep sadness" at the attack.
France paid tribute to the "rapid intervention of the Tunisian security forces and stands by Tunisia to continue the fight against antisemitism and all forms of fanaticism," the statement said.
Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli noted that "unfortunately the incident was preceded by a tense period of shouts and harassment of the Jewish community at the site," according to his office.
Israel's foreign minister, Eli Cohen, spoke with the Chief Rabbi of Tunis, Haim Bitan, and "told him that Israel stands alongside the community in this difficult hour." He said he instructed ministry officials to provide all needed aid. Israel and Tunisia do not have formal diplomatic relations.
The European Jewish Congress expressed its "shock and outrage".
"Terror attacks continue to target Jews around the world even when they are gathered in prayer, as we know from countless experiences over the years including at this very synagogue," EJC President Ariel Muzicant said in a statement.
Djerba, a picturesque island off the southern coast of Tunisia, is home to the North African country's main Jewish community. An annual pilgrimage at the reportedly 2,500-year-old Ghriba temple, thought to be one of the world's oldest synagogues, attracts thousands of visitors from around the world.
The assailant, a guard affiliated with the National Guard naval center in the port town of Aghir on Djerba, first killed a colleague with his service weapon before seizing ammunition and heading toward the Ghriba synagogue, the Tunisian Interior ministry said.
When he reached the site, he opened fire on security units stationed at the temple, who fired back, killing him before he reached the entrance, the ministry said.
Former Minister of Tourism René Trabelsi told Tunisian radio Mosaique FM he was at the Ghriba synagogue with family members during the attack. He described the place as almost empty because most visitors had already left the site.
"The shooting was heavy and the attacker tried to enter the synagogue compound," he said. "The counterterrorism officers, who were extremely professional, quickly blocked all exits. A carnage was thus avoided."
Aviel Haddad's sister, Rona, told Israel's Kan public radio that the entire family had immigrated to Israel from Tunisia, and that her brother, a jeweler, traveled to Djerba frequently.
She said she and her family tried unsuccessfully for hours after the attack to contact him and later learned the news through family friends.
Rona Haddad said the family intended to bury Aviel Haddad in Israel.
The president of the Israelite Consistory of the French southern city of Marseille, Michel Cohen-Tenoudji said Benjamin Haddad, a father of four, was a well-known, very active member of the local Jewish community.
"He was running a kosher bakery in the city center and was known for offering Shabbat bread to people in need," he told French media. "The family is devastated. On a personal level, I feel indignation, horror and sorrow."
In 2002, a truck bombing killed some 20 people at the entrance to the same temple during the annual Jewish pilgrimage. Al-Qaida claimed that attack, whose victims included German and French tourists as well as Tunisians.
In 2015, an attack in Tunisia at the Mediterranean resort of Sousse killed 38, mostly British tourists. The Islamic State group claimed the attack, along with attacks that year on the famed Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis and on a bus carrying presidential guards.