Last Updated: Mon Jan 10, 2011 07:09 am (KSA) 04:09 am (GMT)

Death toll rises to 14 in Tunisia’s bloody day


Tunisia's official news agency on Sunday announced six more civilian deaths in clashes with police in the past 24 hours, bringing the total death toll for the period to 14.

The TAP news agency, citing an unnamed official source, said four people had been killed in the town of Rgeb, and a further two people had been killed in the town of Gassrine. Previously, the government said eight people had died in violence overnight and on Sunday.

A leading opposition leader had said the death toll from the ongoing riots reached at least 20 people.

"Reports reaching us from Kasserine and Tala speak of at least 20 killed by bullets in the clashes which were continuing this morning," said Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

Chebbi, quoting his party's network of sources in the towns, said the funeral processions for the victims had been fired on.

Chebbi appealed to Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali "to call an immediate ceasefire to spare the lives of innocent citizens and respect their right to protest."

Witnesses earlier told AFP that four people had been killed by gunfire in Kasserine. Some witnesses said the toll could rise because of "the large number of seriously injured" in the clashes.

The Tunisian government earlier said only two civilians were killed and eight
injured in the overnight clashes.

People taking part in the spate of unrest say they are angry at a lack of jobs and investment, but officials say the rioting is the work of a minority of extremists intent on damaging the north African country.

 The police opened fire in legitimate self-defense and this led to two dead and eight wounded 
Government statement

The two deaths confirmed by the authorities happened in clashes late on Saturday in the town of Thala, about 200 km (125 miles) southwest of the capital, near the border with Algeria.

In a statement, the government, quoting an unidentified Interior Ministry official, said police had opened fire after warning shots in the air failed to stop a violent crowd from attacking government buildings.

"The police opened fire in legitimate self-defense and this led to two dead and eight wounded, as well as several wounded among police, three of them seriously," the statement said.

It said the crowd used petrol bombs and stones to attack a filling station, a government building and a police station.

Witnesses in the nearby town of Gassrine, the administrative center of the region where Thala is located, told Reuters by telephone that unrest which broke out overnight had escalated further on Sunday.

Three witnesses, including one local trade union activist, said they had seen three bodies in Gassrine -- one killed late on Saturday and the others on Sunday.

Government officials did not respond to phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on casualties in Gassrine. Staff at the local hospital refused to answer questions.

"Young men are throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and the police are opening fire everywhere in the streets of Gassrine," Chokri Hayouni, the union activist, told Reuters.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has said the protests are unacceptable and could harm Tunisia's interests by discouraging investors and tourists who provide a large part of the country's revenues.

Tunisian authorities say that, throughout the unrest, police have used force only where necessary to stop protesters endangering life and ransacking government buildings. They also say they are investing millions of dollars in creating new jobs.

US concerns

The United States said on Friday it called in Tunisia's ambassador in Washington to express concern about the protests. The country has in the past been praised by Western allies as a model of stability in the Arab world.

Before Saturday night's violence in Thala, two people had been killed in the unrest. Another two killed themselves in acts of protest, including one man who set himself on fire last month, triggering the series of riots.

Demonstrations are rare in Tunisia, which has had only two presidents since independence from France 55 years ago. Rights groups say the government does not tolerate dissent, but officials deny this and say they are committed to democracy.

Tunisia has one of the most open economies in the region and has recorded strong economic growth in the past decade -- though this was trimmed by the slowdown in the euro zone, its main trading partner.

However, Tunisia's growth has not been fast enough to satisfy demand for jobs. This is particularly acute among the young in the interior of the country, away from the more prosperous coastal areas.

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