Tunisian gunman laughed and joked with tourists before killing 27

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Date June 27, 2015 – 4:35PM
Richard Spencer and Robert Mendick in London and Ben Farmer in Sousse
Tourists console each other following a shooting attack in the Tunisia resort town of Sousse.Tourists console each other following a shooting attack in the Tunisia resort town of Sousse.

Before the bullets came laughter.

As 23-year-old Seifeddine Yacoubi hopped off an inflatable boat about midday at the popular holiday resort of El Kantaoui, north of Sousse on Friday, he quickly blended into the hundreds of people enjoying a sunny day.

The aviation student carried a beach parasol and joked and laughed with tourists as he moved among the mainly European holidaymakers, seeking out anyone from Britain or France.

Police officers surround a man suspected to be involved in an attack on a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia,.Police officers surround a man suspected to be involved in an attack on a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia,. Photo: STRINGER

But, in an instant, the scene changed. Yacoubi produced an AK 47 from under his umbrella and the slaughter began.

The horrific scene that unfolded was one of three terrorist attacks across three continents on the same day. In France, a lone killer decapitated a man at a liquid gas factory and flew a jihadist flag. In Kuwait, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a mosque that killed 27 and injured hundreds.

World leaders united in outrage and promised further action to co-ordinate a response to the attacks.

Injured people are treated near the area where the attack took place.Injured people are treated near the area where the attack took place. Photo: AP

In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott convened an emergency meeting of his national security team on Saturday, but the government has no immediate plans to raise Australia’s threat level to extreme.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Tunisian attack, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a US-based organisation.

Yacoubi, who Islamic State called Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani, starting his shooting rampage on the beach, before making his way towards the hotels behind.

The tourists were defenceless and Yacoubi cut them down mercilessly.

Nurse Lorna Carty, from County Meath in Ireland, was shot on the beach just hours before her flight home. The mother-of-two had brought her husband Declan on holiday to help him recover from heart surgery.

The wounded included Matthew James, 30, from England, who was shot four times in the stomach while desperately trying to protect his fiancee, Sarah Wilson.

“He took a bullet for me,” Ms Wilson said outside the hospital. “I owe him my life because he threw himself in front of me when the shooting started. He was covered in blood from the shots but he just told me to run away.

“I ran back, past bodies on the beach to reach our hotel. It was chaos – there was a body in the hotel pool and it was just full of blood.”

Eventually, police shot Yacoubi. His body was photographed in the street, with the Kalashnikov lying next to him.

In the wake of the attack, sun-loungers were used as makeshift stretchers to carry the wounded to ambulances.

Survivors told how they were hit while others were hysterical as their wounded partners were taken to hospital. Frightened tourists barricaded themselves into their hotel rooms and a pregnant woman went into labour in the confusion.

Olivia Leathley, 24, heard “loud bangs” and saw from her hotel room that people were fleeing the beach, as holiday company representatives blew whistles.

“All of a sudden, from the level just below the lobby there was a huge sound of loads of machinegun fire and one of the reps just said ‘run’. I was crying and we heard the machinegun fire and it was so loud and it seemed like it was just behind us, it seemed so close.”

Ellie Makin, from Britain, was on the right-hand edge of her hotel’s section of beach. “All I saw was a gun and an umbrella being dropped,” she told ITV. “Then he started firing to the right hand side of us. If he had fired to the left I don’t know what would have happened, but we were very lucky.”

Tomas O Riordain, from Cork, Ireland, was in a neighbouring hotel. “It was all over three or four minutes after it started,” he told RTE radio, saying he had two daughters at the beach and “just had to wait and see if they came back”. It was the second time he had been caught up in a terrorist attack, as he was in Liverpool Street, London during the July 7, 2005, bombings.

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, summoned an immediate meeting of the Cobra emergency response committee.

“This is a threat that faces all of us,” he said, at the end of the European Council summit in Brussels. “These events have taken place today in Tunisia and in France but they can happen anywhere. We all face this threat.”

He said there should be a focus on improving counter-terrorism co-operation, but that taking on the radicalisation of young people was perhaps “more important”.

He added: “We have to combat it with everything we have.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama was briefed before addressing a memorial service for the victims of a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last week. “We stand with these nations as they respond to attacks on their soil today,” the White House said.

Tunisia has become a key target for jihadist attacks. It is the one country that has undergone a relatively successful transition to democracy following the Arab Spring, and remained open to Western values. But at the same time it has contributed more foreign jihadists to the war in Syria than anywhere else.

In March, 21 people were killed in an attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, all of them tourists apart from a security officer and a cleaning lady.

The resort complex that was the scene of Friday’s attack contains several hotels popular with British tour companies including Thomson, First Choice and Thomas Cook.

There was confusion the evening before over the arrest of a man who was photographed being led away by armed police while a woman tried to assault him. It was not clear if he was connected to the attack.

The Telegraph, London, with Reuters

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