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Tunisia arrests eight with 'direct links' to beach attack

02 July 2015, 18:34

Tunis -Tunisia has arrested eight people in connection with last week's jihadist massacre at a seaside resort, as the remains of more slain Britons were set to be flown home Thursday.

Friday's attack saw 23-year-old student Seifeddine Rezgui gun down 38 foreign tourists, including 30 Britons, after pulling a Kalashnikov assault rifle from a beach umbrella at the resort of Port El Kantaoui, near Sousse.

It was the worst ever massacre in Tunisia and saw Britain's worst loss of life in such an attack since the July 2005 London bombings.

"Eight people with direct links to the carrying out of the operation, including a woman, have been arrested," said Kamel Jendoubi, the minister who heads a crisis group set up after the attack.

"The security services have been able to... uncover and destroy the network that was behind this operation," Jendoubi told a news conference, without elaborating on their alleged role.

Jendoubi said British authorities were assisting with the investigation.

"As part of the security cooperation between Tunisia and Britain, 10 British investigators are working on the probe," he said.

Tunisia fears the attack -- which also claimed the lives of three people from Ireland, two from Germany and one each from Belgium, Portugal and Russia -- will damage its tourism industry.

- Fears for tourism -

The sector accounts for about seven percent of gross domestic product in a country already suffering from the upheaval that followed the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

After the attack -- which was claimed by the jihadist Islamic State group -- Tunisia's government pledged to boost security around hotels, beaches and attractions.

Jendoubi said 1,377 extra armed security officers had been deployed to reinforce police already on the ground.

But in some tourist areas around Tunis and in the resort of Hammamet south of the capital reinforcements were late to deploy, triggering the ire of Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli.

"We had agreed to protect the beaches. Where are the agents tasked with security the beaches," Gharsalli was heard saying to a security official during an inspection of Hammamet.

"Where are they? Are they having a coffee," he added, according to a video posted on the website of private Cap FM radio Wednesday night.

An AFP correspondent who toured the beach resort of Gammarth northeast of Tunisia on Thursday morning said there were still no security reinforcements around.

- Minute of remembrance -

Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed Tunisia's formal identification of 30 of those slain as Britons.

The bodies of eight Britons were flown Wednesday to a Royal Air Force station north of London, in a solemn ceremony reminiscent of the repatriation of fallen soldiers.

"We will be repatriating another nine bodies today, and there will be two further repatriation flights tomorrow and Saturday," Hammond said.

"Tomorrow is also a week from the date of the attack, and we will be holding a minute's remembrance at noon across the UK as well as in British embassies and posts around the world."

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to back a full investigation into the attack, calling for "a response at home and abroad" to violent Islamic fundamentalism.

Several witnesses said the shooting rampage lasted more than 30 minutes before the gunman was shot dead, but officials say police were on the scene much sooner.

President Beji Caid Essebsi admitted this week that security forces had not taken measures to protect beaches despite jihadist threats against tourists.

Friday's attack was the second on tourists in Tunisia claimed by IS in just three months, after the extremist group said it was behind a March attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis that killed 22 people.

Tunisian authorities have said Rezgui received weapons training from jihadists in neighbouring Libya, travelling to the chaos-wracked country at the same time as the two young Tunisians behind the Bardo attack.

In the past four years, dozens of police and soldiers have been killed in Tunisia in clashes and ambushes attributed to jihadists -- mainly in the western Chaambi Mountains.

Disillusionment and social exclusion have fuelled radicalism among young Tunisians, with the country exporting some 3,000 jihadist fighters to Iraq, Syria and Libya.

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