Tunisian authorities said Thursday that they had arrested 23 suspects in connection with last week’s jihadist massacre at the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis.
“Twenty-three suspects including a woman have been arrested as part of a terrorist cell” involved in the attack, Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli told journalists, adding that “80 percent of this cell” had been broken up.
All of those arrested were Tunisians, he said, while another Tunisian, two Moroccans and an Algerian suspected of being members of the cell were on the run.
The Tunisian, Maher Ben Mouldi Kaidi, is alleged to have provided the automatic weapons to the two gunmen who shot dead 21 people – including 20 foreign tourists – at Tunisia’s national museum on March 18.
The minister said the operation was organised by an Algerian jihadist named Lokmane Abou Sakhr, one of the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, which has been involved in numerous skirmishes with Tunisian forces along the border with Algeria.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed however by al Qaeda’s jihadist rival, the Islamic State group.
“At this stage we cannot name (the group responsible),” Gharsalli said. “What is certain is that there are links with Okba Ibn Nafaa.”
The Bardo attack shocked Tunisia, which had been largely spared the violence that followed the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolts that swept across the region.
The deadly assault triggered spontaneous protests in the North African country last week, with tens of thousands marching against terrorism.
Officials are organising another rally on Sunday with several foreign leaders expected, including French President François Hollande.
Last week’s carnage has also prompted a shakedown of the country’s security apparatus, with the sacking of six police chiefs, including the head of tourist security.
Tunisia’s struggling economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry, which has been rattled by regional instability and the worsening violence in neighbouring Libya.