Suicide bomber attacks Tunisian resort town


* Bomber targeted beach hotel

* Government is cracking down on hardline Islamists

* Libya chaos exploited by Tunisia's militants

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Oct 30 (Reuters) - A suicide bomber blew himself upin the Tunisian tourist resort of Sousse on Wednesday, the firstsuch assault in more than a decade in a country now battlingIslamist militants boosted by chaos in neighbouring Libya.

Police foiled another attack when they arrested a would-besuicide bomber at former President Habib Bourguiba's tomb in theseaside town of Monastir, and detained five other people inSousse thought to be plotting assaults, security sources said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but theIslamist-led government said all the arrested men had admittedto being members of the militant Ansar al-Sharia movement, whichit says is linked to al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate.

"The two suicide bombers are radical Islamist jihadists.They are Tunisians, but they had been in a neighbouringcountry," said Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui,without specifying the country.

The first bomber had tried to enter the Riadh Palms Hotelwith a suitcase. Turned away, he ran onto the beach and blewhimself up, a security source said. No one else was hurt.

The bombing is bad news for the vital tourism industry inTunisia, which attracted 5.8 million mostly European visitors toits Mediterranean beaches and desert tours in 2012. Tourism isstill recovering from the 2011 uprising that toppled the NorthAfrican country's autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia's stock market dropped 0.95 percent after thebombing.

"We don't know the consequences right now ... Whateverhappens it will be negative because this is the first time theyattack a hotel," said Mohamed Ali Toumi, head of Tunisia'sfederation of travel agencies.

Al Qaeda carried out Tunisia's only previous suicidebombing in 2002 when 21 people were killed at a synagogue on theisland of Djerba.

Police tightened security in the capital Tunis and sealedoff the nearby village of Sidi Bou Said, which is popular withtourists. Hundreds of police deployed in other resorts such asHammamet and Djerba.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda Party, which governs incoalition with two secular parties, condemned attacks ontourists, which he said targeted Tunisia's political transition.

"Whoever tried to assault the tourists and the tomb ofPresident Bourguiba are criminals who want to destroy theeconomy and democratic transition in Tunisia," he said.

"They will not succeed, thanks to the vigilance of oursecurity and our army and our unity against terrorism."


Since the 2011 uprising, Islamists have pressed for strictSharia law to be imposed in one of the Muslim world's mostsecular countries, which has strong ties to Europe.

Oppressed and jailed under Ben Ali, conservative Salafis -followers of a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam - have had morefreedom to express their views since 2011.

Hardline Islamists have also attacked alcohol sellers, artshows, theatres and cinemas, and have taken over mosques.

The rise to power of an elected Islamist-led government hasfuelled fears of many secular Tunisians that women's rights andliberal educational traditions may be eroded.

The ruling Ennahda party says even ultra-orthodox Islamistviews must be accommodated in Tunisia's fledgling democracy, butthat there is no place for armed militants.

Authorities say the militants have acquired weapons andtraining in neighbouring Libya, where the government has failedto impose order since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

Ennahda accused Ansar al-Sharia militants of being behindthe assassination of two secular opposition leaders this year.

Those attacks ignited protests by opposition supporters whosaid Ennahda had been lenient with hardline Islamists. Ennahdahas agreed to step down within the next three weeks to end theunrest and make way for a caretaker government until elections.

Ansar al-Sharia was also blamed for inciting an attack byIslamist protesters on the U.S. embassy a year ago. Its leaderis a former al Qaeda veteran who once fought in Afghanistan.

Nine Tunisian policemen were killed in clashes withmilitants earlier this month in two different cities.

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