SOUSSE, Tunisia — Western tourists told Saturday how they survived a gun massacre on a Mediterranean beach that left dozens dead — an attack claimed by ISIS.
At least 39 people — mostly British, German and Belgian vacationers — were killed as they sat on sun loungers in Sousse, a popular resort about 90 miles south of the capital, Tunis.
A gunman disguised as a tourist opened fire on foreigners at the Imperial Marhaba hotel on Friday with a black Kalashnikov rifle he had hidden in an umbrella.
Guests fled in panic, with sun loungers used as makeshift stretchers to treat the wounded.
“There was just a lot of screaming … absolutely horrid screaming,” tourist Matthew Kenyon, 21, told NBC News.
Keith Scandrett-Whitlam , who witnessed the carnage from a boat offshore, described the scene as “surreal.”
“There was panic, just sheer panic,” he said. “It's not something you experience or you expect when you go on holiday.”
Blood was being cleaned away at the beach on Saturday, as ISIS claimed responsibility and identified the attacker as Saif Rezgui, a 24-year-old student who was not on any terrorism watch list.
Tour companies were evacuating thousands of travelers from the country Saturday. Tour operators Thomson and First Choice, which are owned by German travel group TUI, sent 10 planes to repatriate guests.
Prime Minister David Cameron chaired a meeting of senior ministers and officials to manage Britain's response to the attack. At least 15 British nationals were killed. "I'm afraid that the British public need to be prepared for the fact that many of those killed were British," Cameron told reporters.
Dean Seymour, who arrived back in London’s Gatwick airport on Saturday, said he hid in his room to avoid being hit by bullets.
“(There was) a youngish sort of, I'm guessing, Tunisian man with a machine gun and he was shooting randomly just around and shooting up in the air, shouting in Arabic, and so we quickly shut the door,” he said. “We thought the bathroom would be the safest place."
Olivia Leathley, who flew home to the U.K. immediately after the attack, told the BBC: “We just ran as far as way from the bullets as we could."
“I was on the phone to my dad screaming ‘I love you, I’m so scared’,” she recalled. “We managed to get into a small security lodge at the hotel. We know now that the gunman was killed about 400 yards away from where we were hiding.”
Another eyewitness, called Katrina, told Reuters TV: "It was like a war, really it was. I really was afraid."
A popular tourism destination, Tunisia has emerged from political upheaval after its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Praised for its transition to democracy, the country is also struggling with rising Islamist militancy.
Tunisian authorities were already on the alert, months after two gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, gunning down Japanese, French and Spanish visitors as they arrived by bus.
Like the Bardo attackers, the young Tunisian gunman appears to have fallen prey to extremist recruiters, radicalized and drawn away from his life as a student in a very short time, security sources said.
“There was panic, just sheer panic. It's not something you experience or you expect when you go on holiday.”
Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has seen radical imams and ultraconservative groups extend their influence, taking over mosques and setting up religious schools in the early turmoil of the country's transition.
More than 3,000 Tunisians are fighting for Islamic State and other groups in Iraq, Syria and neighboring Libya. Some have warned they will return to carry out attacks in their homeland, one of the most secular nations in the Arab world.
It was not the first time Sousse had been targeted. In October 2013, a young Tunisian militant blew himself up on a Sousse beach, killing only himself, after he was refused entry into a hotel. A fellow attacker was caught before he could detonate his bomb among tourists at a popular monument not far away.