CAIRO —Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a month-long state of emergency and citywide curfew in the capital, Tunis, on Tuesday after a deadly blast ripped through a bus carrying security officers tasked with guarding the North African leader.
Tunisia’s Interior Ministry called the explosion a “terrorist act,” but authorities did not say whether a bomb was planted on the bus or an explosive was fired at the vehicle. A presidential source told Reuters news agency that the attack was likely the work of a suicide bomber but did not elaborate.
Tunisia, a nation of 11 million, has struggled to curb Islamist militancy as it builds its fragile democracy after a revolution in the country in 2011, the first of a wave of civil uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring.
The country has suffered two major terrorist attacks this year — at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in March and at a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse in June. More than 60 people, most of them foreigners, were gunned down by Islamist militants in both attacks, which devastated Tunisia’s tourism industry.
Tunisia is often praised as the only nation in the region to emerge from the Arab Spring revolts with a largely democratic government. In October, an alliance of civil-society groups, labor unions and activists was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in “advancing democracy” in Tunisia, the Nobel committee said.
But the country, with high youth unemployment and deepening poverty, has also sent the largest number of foreign fighters to places such as Iraq and Syria, experts say. Analysts attribute the flow of Tunisians into militant ranks to a combination of economic hardship, jihadist ideology and greater freedoms that allowed the extremists to organize and travel after the uprising. Previously, they were jailed — and often tortured — by the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in January 2011.
The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the attack in Sousse and for the earlier Tunis attack. On Tuesday, it remained unclear whether the victims of the bombing were all members of the presidential guard or if the casualties included civilian bystanders.
Images published on Tunisian news Web sites and circulated on social media showed a mangled white passenger bus underneath a gray sky amid heavy rain in the city. The blast hit the bus as it made its way along Tunis’s Avenue Mohamed V, which is lined with hotels belonging to foreign chains, a major conference center and the Tunisian central bank.
The bomb exploded near where Mohamed V meets Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the center of the pro-democracy protests that toppled Ben Ali, according to Tunisian media outlets. The Interior Ministry is also near that intersection.
Bassem Trifi witnessed the blast and told the Associated Press that an explosion hit the driver's side of the bus. "I saw at least five corpses on the ground," said Trifi, a human rights lawyer. "This was not an ordinary explosion."
Police and ambulances rushed to the scene, with security personnel also fanning out in central Tunis, the AP reported. This month, the AP also reported that security forces deployed in unusually high numbers in downtown Tunis but that authorities did not say whether there was a specific threat.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to Tunis on Nov. 13. In a news conference with Tunisia's foreign minister, Kerry said that U.S. military personnel would visit Tunisia to discuss greater intelligence cooperation between the two countries.