Assailant, identified as naval officer, shot dead by other guards protecting Djerba site, where some 5,000 Jews had gathered for annual event; gunman’s motives probed

Two worshippers were killed when a Tunisian officer opened fire at a synagogue on the island of Djerba Tuesday night, as hundreds of Jews held an annual pilgrimage there, Tunisian authorities said.

A guard was also killed in the brazen attack on the heavily-secured El Ghriba synagogue, and nine others, including four civilians, were injured.

The two worshippers were later identified by Tunisian authorities as a Tunisian citizen, 30, and a French national, 42. Some news reports said four were killed in the attack, including a second guard, though it was unclear if that was the shooter or a victim.

According to the ministry, the officer, affiliated with the National Guard naval center in the town of Aghir on Djerba, first turned his service weapon on a colleague, before grabbing more bullets and making his way to the synagogue.

When he reached the area, he began shooting wildly at security units stationed at the synagogue, who responded with gunfire, killing him. The synagogue was locked down and those inside were kept secure.

Authorities are probing what led to the attack.

“Investigations are continuing in order to shed light on the motives for this cowardly aggression,” the ministry said, refraining from referring to the shooting as a terrorist attack.

Videos surfaced online shortly after the attack showing alarmed worshipers inside the synagogue, where hundreds of Jews from France, Israel and beyond were celebrating the Lag b’Omer holiday along with the tiny local Jewish community.

Ghayda Thabet, a member of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, was at the Ghriba synagogue and appealed for help on Facebook. “They are shooting with live ammunition. Help us,” she pleaded in a post.

Tunisian authorities maintain a permanent presence around the synagogue, situated near a part of the island where hundreds of Jews live. Security is beefed up during Jewish holidays, especially on Lag B’Omer.

Every year, Jews from around the world convene on Djerba for the Hilula of Ghriba – a feast which features a festive procession on or near Lag B’Omer. The procession traditionally ends at the El Ghriba synagogue, thought to have been established by Jews fleeing persecution some 2,500 years ago.

The current building was constructed in the 19th century and is sometimes referred to as the oldest existing synagogue in Africa.

Some 5,000 people were taking part in these year’s pilgrimage.

Many of those visiting were from France, which has a large community of Tunisian Jews. The French embassy in Tunisia said it opened an emergency hotline for pilgrims following the shooting.

On Saturday, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry posted a video showing Minister Kamel Feki reviewing security arrangements on Djerba ahead of the pilgrimage.

Al-Qaeda terrorists set off an explosion outside the El Ghriba Synagogue in 2002, killing 20 people, including 14 German tourists.