Tunisia attack: Emergency airlift to evacuate all British tourists underway after Foreign Office advice tells all to leave

Foreign Office has put Tunisia on the same alert level as Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq

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The Independent Online

The airlift to bring 3,000 UK holidaymakers home from Tunisia got underway at dawn today. A Thomas Cook Airlines jet took off from Manchester to bring home more than 200 passengers after the Foreign Secretary placed the country on its “no-go” list.

The warning places Tunisia in the same category as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

The decision had immediate consequences for the UK’s travel industry. While the heightened warning level carries no legal force, all mainstream travel firms regard it as a signal to bring tourists home as expeditiously as possible.

Two weeks ago 30 British tourists were among the 38 people murdered by an Islamist gunman on the beach. A Tunisian student, Seifeddine Rezgui, opened fire on tourists on sun-loungers at a luxury hotel just north of the resort of Sousse.

In the past two weeks the Tunisian authorities have failed to convince the Foreign Office that it can contain a multiplicity of threats, many emanating from across the long, leaky border with Libya.

The new travel advice says: “Although we have had good co-operation from the Tunisian government, including putting in place additional security measures, the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably, reinforcing our view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely.

“On balance, we do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia at the present time.”

Coaches carrying the holidaymakers are being given an armed military escort to Enfidha airport, which is itself heavily protected following the two attacks on tourists this year; in March the Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis, was the scene of another massacre.

The first few planes will fly to Manchester, Gatwick and East Midlands, with coach connections provided for travellers who were originally booked to other airports.

Abta, the travel association, believes that a combination of special rescue flights and normally scheduled operations will bring all British package holidaymakers by the end of the weekend.

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No further holidays are scheduled for the rest of the summer, even if the Foreign Office lifts the “no-go” warning in a matter of weeks.

Last year 424,000 British travellers visited Tunisia; the total for 2015 is likely to be fewer than half as many.

The holidaymakers who died on the beach were travelling with Thomson and its all-inclusive brand, First Choice. Following the attack, Thomson flew home all its customers. Immediately after the Foreign Office announcement, the company said: “We have taken the decision to repatriate all British Thomson and First Choice staff currently working in Tunisia within the next 24 hours.”

Thomas Cook is now the leading tour operator to Tunisia; at the time of the announcement, it had around 2,000 holidaymakers in the country. The company said: “Thomas Cook's next departures for Tunisia from the UK were due to take place on Saturday and have been cancelled following the advice from the FCO.

“Those who are returning home from Tunisia earlier than planned will receive a refund for the days they have missed from their holiday.”

Anyone with a package holiday booked to Tunisia up to the end of October is now entitled to choose between a refund or alternative holiday. Tour operators are switching capacity from Tunisia to Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Abta, the travel association, said: “Those people with bookings beyond the summer are advised to wait until closer to the departure date to contact their travel company as the situation is fluid.”

Independent travellers are being urged to make their own arrangements, which are likely to involve scheduled flights from Tunis airport. Anyone who chooses to stay against the new advice will find their travel insurance is invalid, though policies will stay in effect for travellers who are endeavouring to find a way to leave the country.

Tunisia’s ambassador to the UK, Nabil Ammar, told BBC Newsnight that the decision plays into the hands of terrorists: “By damaging the tourism, by having foreigners leaving the country, they damage the whole sector and put so many people out of work and on the streets.

“One of the sources of terrorism is lack of hope.”

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