, PORT EL KANTAOUI, June 26- At least 28 people including foreigners were killed Friday in a mass shooting at a Tunisian beach resort packed with holidaymakers, in the North African country’s worst attack in recent history.
The carnage came on a day of bloodshed with a suicide bomber killing 25 people at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait and a suspected Islamist attacking a factory in France.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Tunisian attack, but the Islamic State group, which marks June 29 as the first anniversary of its “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria, said it was behind the Kuwait bombing.
Witnesses described scenes of panic after the shooting at the Marhaba Hotel in the tourist district of Port el Kantaoui on the northern outskirts of Sousse, about 140 kilometres (87 miles) south of Tunis.
Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui told AFP the toll is “28 dead including tourists”, without giving their nationalities.
Health ministry official Henda Chebbi told Mosaique FM radio that 12 people were hospitalised with various injuries.
“It was a terrorist attack” targeting the Marhaba Hotel, Aroui said.
“The assailant was killed,” he added, without ruling out the possibility of more than one attacker.
Secretary of State for Security Rafik Chelly told Mosaique FM the gunman was a Tunisian student unknown to authorities.
“He entered by the beach, dressed like someone who was going to swim, and he had a beach umbrella with his gun in it. Then when he came to the beach he used his weapon,” Chelly said.
– ‘Bullets whizzing’ –
The shooting was the worst in modern day Tunisia and came just nearly three months after a March attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman.
IS claimed responsibility for the Bardo attack although Tunisia says it was carried out by an Algerian jihadist.
Gary Pine, a British holidaymaker, said Friday’s shooting happened at around midday (1100 GMT) when the beach was thronged.
“Over to our left, about 100 yards (metres) or so away, we saw what we thought was firecrackers going off,” Pine told Britain’s Sky News television.
“Only when you could start hearing bullets whizzing around your ear do you realise it was something a lot more serious than firecrackers.”
Pine said panic spread quickly and people scrambled for safety.
“There was a mass exodus off the beach,” said Pine, adding he heard 20 or 30 shots.
“My son was in the sea at the time and of course my wife and myself were shouting for him to get out the sea quick and as we ran up the beach he said: ‘I just saw someone get shot’.”
Holidaymaker Susan Ricketts said people were “running and screaming crying and going hysterical”.
Dublin woman Elizabeth O’Brien told Ireland’s RTE radio she also heard what appeared to be fireworks before realising it was gunfire.
“I ran to the sea to my children and grabbed our things and, as I was running towards the hotel, the waiters and the security on the beach started shouting ‘Run, run, run’,” she said.
The tourist area was later completely sealed off by security forces, a witness told AFP by telephone.
– ‘Be vigilant’ –
The French embassy in Tunis, in an SMS message, urged its nationals to be vigilant and to “limit travel and avoid gatherings”.
President Francois Hollande of France and his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi both expressed their “solidarity in face of terrorism”, a French statement issued in Paris said.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has seen a surge in radical Islam since veteran president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the 2011 revolution.
Dozens of members of the security forces have been killed since then in jihadist attacks.
In October 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a botched attack on a beach in Sousse while security forces foiled another planned attack nearby.
Even before the latest attack, Tunisia’s tourism industry had been bracing for a heavy blow from the Bardo museum shooting but was determined to woo tourists with new security measures and an advertising campaign.
Tourism Minister Salma Rekik announced in April a raft of measures to bolster security in tourist areas and on roads leading to them, and to tighten controls at airports.
The tourism sector, which accounts for seven percent of Tunisia’s GDP and almost 400,000 direct and indirect jobs, had already been rattled by political instability and rising Islamist violence.