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British government tells tourists: Leave Tunisia

Rescuers carry the body of a tourist who was shot dead by a gunman at a beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, June 26, 2015.
Amine Ben Aziza | Reuters

The British government on Thursday told all U.K. tourists to leave Tunisia because a terrorist attack is "highly likely," and the North African country's government has not done enough to enhance security.

The Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Tunisia, a popular holiday destination for Britons. It said British tourists on package holidays should contact their travel agents, which will arrange flights to bring them home.

Some 38 tourists, 30 of them British, were killed on June 26 when a gunman stormed the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse. In March, 22 people died in an attack at the National Bardo Museum outside Tunis.

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"While we do not have any information suggesting a specific or imminent threat, since the attack in Sousse the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably leading us to the view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.

In a statement, his office said the travel advice had been changed because "we do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia."

On Saturday, more than a week after the Sousse attack, Tunisian authorities announced a state of emergency and enacted new security measures such as sending more than 1,300 security forces to patrol hotels, beaches and other tourist sites.

Hammond, speaking on the sidelines of talks about Iran's nuclear program in Vienna, said British authorities were in close contact with tour operators, who were arranging to get their customers home "as quickly as possible."

"To those travelling independently, our advice is to return on commercial flights which are operating normally," he added.

Travel company Thomas Cook, which has about 2,000 British customers in Tunisia, said it would be bringing customers back on its 10 scheduled flights this weekend, and use other airlines if needed. Spokesman Ian Benjafield said the company would get people home "whatever way we can."

Thomas Cook, along with firms Thomson and First Choice, canceled trips to Tunisia through Oct. 31. The 30 Britons who died in Sousse were Thomson and First Choice customers and the operators - both owned by TUI Group - have no travelers in Tunisia.

Michelle Ayres, a British tourist in Sousse, said she and other travelers had not received any information other than what they found online.

She wondered "if us Britons are at risk why put us all on the same buses to remove us from the hotels? Surely, that is the risk that they want?"

"We all feel perfectly safe within the hotel," she told Channel 4 News. "They have been amazing."

The U.K. decision amounts to a major new blow to Tunisia's tourist industry. Hundreds of thousands of British tourists visit Tunisia each year. Many Britons left after the Sousse attack, but some 3,000 are still in Tunisia.

Germany's Foreign Ministry said it was observing the situation very closely and adjusting travel advice regularly. There was no immediate change to its travel advice, last updated five days ago. Two Germans were killed in the Sousse attack.

France's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday renewed its recommendation for French nationals in Tunisia to be "particularly vigilant" in the wake of the Sousse attack.

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It stopped short of advising French nationals to return home. A ministry spokesman was not immediately available for comment following the British statement.

Tunisia's hospitality industry has already felt a major impact.

At the Riu Palace Hammamet Marhaba in coastal Hammamet, southeast of Tunis, receptionist Hamdi Mohsen said that since the attack in Sousse, business is down like he's never seen before in his 34 years working at the resort.

"It's all because of Sousse," he said. He noted that the hotel now has only about 100 visitors, far short of the 800-850 person capacity - and no Britons at all. The hotel, which was nearly full in early June, tends to host about 300 Britons a day at this time of year, he said.