TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A man blew himself up Wednesday in front of a popular seaside hotel as authorities foiled a possibly related assault at the mausoleum of modern Tunisia's secular founder, the Interior Ministry said. The attack was believed to be the country's first suicide bombing.
Tunisia had largely avoided major terrorist incidents, but since the country kicked off the Arab Spring by overthrowing its long-ruling secular dictatorship, it has been battered by a rising Islamist insurgency in remote parts of the country. The violence is the first in a tourist area and raised fears for its already troubled tourism industry.
Witnesses told Tunisian media that the suicide bomber appeared to be about to enter the Riadh Palm hotel in Sousse, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) south of the capital, Tunis, when he exploded. The Interior Ministry said that no one else was injured and no property was damaged. It said the bomber was a Tunisian man wearing an explosive belt.
The city is being searched for possible accomplices, said ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui.
In the foiled attack on the mausoleum in nearby Monastir, an 18-year-old man followed a group of tourists into the mausoleum of modern Tunisia's founder, Habib Bourguiba, carrying a backpack full of TNT. He attempted to distract security by tossing a firework before being subdued, said Hicham Gharbi, spokesman for the presidential guard, which patrols the site.
"He will be questioned to learn his motives and those who ordered the attack," he told local radio. Bourguiba, Tunisia's first post-independence president, was a fierce secularist and has long been hated by hardline Islamists.
While the ministry said both men belonged to the same extremist group, it is not certain that the attacks were coordinated or masterminded by one large organization. A shift in tactics by Tunisia's extremists to the mass targeting of civilians would have serious implications for a country struggling with its democratic transition.
Sousse is a major destination for European tourism, a sector that was just now recovering from a catastrophic drop following the country's 2011 revolution when tourists stayed away amid the unrest. A security vacuum opened up and many long-repressed hardline Islamic groups appeared, some of whom armed themselves with weapons from civil war-wracked Libya to the east.
After tolerating hardline groups like Ansar al-Shariah, the moderate Islamist government banned them in September and began arresting members.
In the past year, clashes have erupted in remote areas as authorities discovered militant hideouts. Most recently six National Guardsmen were killed when they surrounded a house in the impoverished interior province of Sidi Bouzid and a policeman was killed in the northern town of Beja on Oct. 23.
There are also frequent clashes with what are described as al-Qaida linked jihadists holed up in mountains along the Algerian border.
In February and then again July, prominent left-wing politicians were shot dead in front of their homes by alleged jihadists.