FOREIGN Secretary Philip Hammond has defended the repatriation of 3,000 British tourists from Tunisia after protests from the north African country that the UK was playing into terrorists’ hands.
The row came against a backdrop of tension and sadness on home soil, as the funeral services for British casualties were held, while terror alerts in Tunisia have been ramped up amid concerns of another attack.
Some Britons in Tunisia voiced anger that the Foreign Office had not changed its travel advice to warn against visiting the country immediately after the 26 June attack in the resort of Sousse, when gunman Seifeddine Rezgui murdered 38 holidaymakers, including 30 UK nationals.
Others said they were disappointed to have to cut their holidays short. Heidi Barlow, 34, said she was reassured by the armed guards posted at hotel entrances and beaches, adding: “People feel safe. They certainly didn’t expect to have to leave.”
Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Finland have all since followed Britain’s lead and discouraged citizens from non-essential travel to Tunisia.
Foreign tourism accounts for around 15 per cent of Tunisian GDP, and the country’s ambassador in London, Nabil Ammar, warned: “This is what the terrorists want. 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.
The church has been inundated with messages and expressions of support in the form of flowers, cards, emails, prayers and words of comfort both for the McQuire family and for the church communityRev Joyce Keyes
“One of the sources of terrorism is lack of hope. It is not the only motor of it but it is one of the very important origins.”
Mr Hammond said the government had been careful not to act in a “knee-jerk manner” by urging Britons to quit Tunisia after the Sousse attack. He said the UK will continue to work with Tunisia on improving security and hoped to downgrade the travel advice “in the not too distant future”.
Downing Street said that “substantial” work is needed to improve security for tourists, and it was likely to be “some time” before the advice against travel can be lifted.
The first disappointed holidaymakers forced to return home from Tunisia yesterday criticised the government’s handling of the issue as they arrived back at Manchester Airport. Tracey Caburn returned with her mother Maureen Sudmore and sister Debbie Murphy, from Pontefract.
Mrs Caburn said: “It’s a disgrace. We felt safe. We would’ve stayed there. We didn’t feel threatened at all. There were guards on the roof, the gates, the beach. We wanted to stay.
“If they were going to bring us home so quickly they should not have let us fly out in the first place.”
Downing Street said the revised travel advice was based on information received over the previous 24 hours. This included evolving intelligence about the threat to Britons in Tunisia; information from the Tunisian security authorities that people with possible links to the Sousse attack were still at large; and the results of a security assessment carried out by UK experts.
Tour operators Thomson and First Choice have cancelled all flights to Tunisia for the summer season, and extra flights are being laid on to evacuate up to 3,000 UK package holidaymakers and 300 independent travellers believed to be in Tunisia.
A Thomas Cook spokesman said it was “strongly advising” customers in Tunisia to return to the UK over the weekend, and was sending specialist assistance teams to the country to offer additional support in resorts. Monarch Airlines is arranging to repatriate all customers in resorts “as soon as possible”. Ireland has followed the UK in advising holidaymakers to leave Tunisia in the wake of the beach terror attack which saw three Irish nationals killed
Foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan said “relatively few” Irish tourists are believed to still be in Tunisia, and added those still in the country will be told about the updated travel advice.
He said: “We are now encouraging any Irish visitors to Tunisia to review whether their presence in Tunisia is essential and, where it is not, we are advising them to leave by commercial means.”
Denmark has also urged its citizens in Tunisia to leave the country.
However the French foreign ministry has said it is not planning to follow Britain and Ireland’s lead.
A German government delegation is understood to be travelling to the country in the next few days to assess the security situation.
In the wake of Western governments calling their nationals home from a country they deem unsafe, Tunisia’s security forces have led a counter-terrorism sweep in a mountainous central region and killed five suspected extremists.
Tunisian prime minister Habib Essid, speaking in a parliamentary debate, said his government “did everything in our power to protect (British) citizens and their interests, as well as those of all other countries”.
The government has carried out 7,000 security operations since a deadly attack on the Bardo museum in January, arresting 1,000 people and stopping 15,000 young people from travelling to fight as jihadists abroad, Mr Essid said, and was working to remedy “short- comings.”
The head of Islamist party Ennahda’s parliamentary group, Noureddine Bhiri, called the British decision “manifestly damaging to Tunisia and its democratic process”.
A French diplomat said French, British and German governments will work with Tunisia, notably in improving airport security and protecting tourist sites and foreign companies. The unnamed diplomat said Western experts would meet next week in Tunis to discuss security measures.