Tunisia attack: 'Paralysed' police let gunman run amok for half an hour, says witness

Theresa May pledges 'united' front against terrorists as rumours swirl about the Sousse massacre

Yasmine Ryan,Jenny Tsiropouloiu
Tuesday 30 June 2015 10:18 BST

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Armed policeman were “paralysed by fear” and allowed the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui to freely massacre British tourists for more than half an hour before shooting him dead, witnesses claim.

Even though two police officers arrived at the scene within minutes, it was said to have been around half an hour before Rezgui was killed. In that time, 38 people, including at least 30 Britons, were fatally wounded. The armed policemen who arrived at the beach were “paralysed by fear”, a Belgian tourist told The Independent, speaking anonymously because she said she was afraid. “Some youths told the police, ‘We’re not afraid of dying, give it [the gun] to us.’”

The youths took the gun and ran up to the pool area, shooting in the air to get his attention, but then the gun jammed. The gunman turned around, threw a grenade at them and chased after them.

“Many people on the beach were supporting the youths as they went into the hotel. People were shouting ‘This is the real Tunisia!’” said the Belgian tourist yesterday, as the Home Secretary ,Theresa May, visited Sousse, where the shootings took place on 26 June.

“We are clear that the terrorists will not win. We are united in working together to defeat them. But united also in working to defend our values,” said Ms May. “What happened here last Friday was a despicable act of cruelty.”

Interviews with The Independent seem to confirm the claims that young people attempted to intervene to try and stop Rezgui. Indeed, footage has already emerged which shows Tunisians forming a human shield to protect tourists. Some of those who lived through the attack on the Imperial Hotel said that the police were nowhere to be seen until after the gunman had left.

A spokesman for Tunisia’s interior ministry, Mohamed Ali Aroui, said over the weekend that the police arrived “within seven minutes” of the beginning of the attack. A woman who was hiding next to the hotel’s spa pool said she saw a man wearing black standing concealed in the stairwell throughout the duration of the attack, who was either a lookout for the gunman or a security officer.

There were unconfirmed claims that a second gunman may have taken part in the attack. Meanwhile, one of the survivors, retired police officer Steve Johnson, told BBC Radio 4 that he saw a man wearing red shorts wielding a gun in the pool area.

“There was gunfire going during that time and by the time we had got up to the third floor and were looking down, we saw a number of bodies on the terrace and the steps and saw another guy – because my colleague had seen the man in the black shorts and shirt on the beach shooting people and now we have got a guy in red shorts with a gun walking down through the terrace and down by the pool and it looked like local people running away from him.”

Whether it was a second gunman, or one of the youths who had taken the police officer’s gun to tackle the gunman, remained unclear. Then there is another question about two unexplained bodies on the first floor of the hotel, witnessed by Maggie Cairns from Bristol who was one of several people hiding in a room. They heard a voice after the attack had ended, and left the room only to find two bodies outside the door.

Another major criticism of the police is that the authorities should have been on high alert during the Ramadan period and the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis where 22 people, mainly foreigners, were killed in March. “There would have been less victims if the police had been present more quickly,” Sarah Ben Hamadi, a political analyst, told The Independent. “This is inadmissable after Bardo. They knew that there was a heightened menace in the tourist zone during Ramadan.”

Tunisian ministers in a press conference at the Imperial Hotel confirmed that there were arrests on 29 June. They said they were still investigating the possibility that the gunman had trained in Libya. The sophistication of the attack suggests he, or they, had high-level training. An official source told The Independent that the gunman used homemade grenadates.

Two of the last British tourists remaining in hospital care in Sousse were returned to London on an RAF C-17. Tunisian doctors have worked tirelessly since 26 June to treat the victims. The head of the Salhoul’s emergency ward was, however, sacked by the health ministry after he refused an order to allow all the hospital’s ambulances to be used to transport the bodies to Tunis on the day of the attack.

The anti-terrorist forensic ward is in Tunis. A source at Salhoul Hospital, however, said the decision to transfer them to the capital was questionable, given there is a forensic ward at the Farah Hached.

The attack has underlined the challenges ahead for this North African country, which has already overcome considerable obstacles to become the only genuine democracy in the Arab world, building a model based on consensus.

Ms May said that she had had a “very constructive” meeting with the Tunisian authorities, and was flanked by the interior ministers of France, Germany and Tunisia during her visit to Sousse.

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