Last Updated: Tue Jan 11, 2011 08:14 am (KSA) 05:14 am (GMT)

Tunisia closes all schools indefinitely over unrest


Tunisia's government ordered the indefinite closure of all schools and universities on Monday in an attempt to stamp out clashes with police which killed 15 civilians at the weekend.

Facing the worst unrest for decades, the government deployed the military onto the streets in the worst-hit areas late on Sunday and that appeared to have had an effect, with fewer clashes and no new deaths reported.

Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters that US ambassador Gordon Gray was called to the a meeting with officials in Tunis after strong comments last week condemning its crackdown on rioters.

"The government had a follow-up discussion with the Tunisian government in Tunis today," Crowley told reporters.

"We again affirmed our concerns about the ongoing violence, the importance of respecting freedom of expression," he said.

Police opened fire to disperse crowds in two Tunisian towns on Monday killing a member of a workers' union and raising the death toll of 15 in a wave of clashes over unemployment and poor living conditions.

The fresh disturbances in Kasserine, Thala and Regueb follow weekend unrest that authorities said left 14 dead. The opposition said at least 20 were killed in the violence, the deadliest since protests erupted mid-December.

A man cradles the head of a Tunisian protestor killed in clashes with security forces in Tala

Security forces fired tear gas on Monday at protesters in Kasserine, 290 kilometers (180 miles) south of the capital Tunis, said Sadok Mahmoudi from the regional branch of the UGTT workers union.

Union member Abdelbasset Kasmi died in the town's hospital early Monday after being shot in clashes on Sunday, he said. A "great number" of people were being treated in the hospital, which was put under the army's control, he said.

In the central city of Regueb police dispersed protesters who gathered as five people who died in the weekend's violence were being buried, an AFP reporter said.

Police fired rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators in the western city of Thala, union sources said.

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali said on Monday the people involved in the clashes with police were guilty of a "terrorist act."

"The events were violent, sometimes bloody, and caused the death of civilians and wounded several members of the security forces. The events were the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked," he said in a speech broadcast by state television.

In Gassrine, a town about 200 km (124 miles) southwest of the capital, a witness said a funeral procession for civilians killed at the weekend turned into a confrontation with police.

 The town is encircled by the police. There are 2,000 protesters in a confrontation throughout the town with the police, who are using tear gas and are opening fire 
Kamel Labidi

"Police opened fire into the air," Mohamed Ali Nasri told Reuters by telephone from the scene.

In the town of Rgeb, witnesses said funeral processions for people shot in earlier clashes also turned violent.

"The town is encircled by the police. There are 2,000 protesters in a confrontation throughout the town with the police, who are using tear gas and are opening fire," Kamel Labidi, who said he was at the scene, told Reuters by telephone.

Tunisian authorities could not immediately be reached to comment on the latest clashes.

They have previously said the police have acted with restraint but were forced to open fire in self-defense when attacked by rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs.

In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the EU's European Commission said it deplored the violence and loss of life and extended its sympathy to the victims. "We call for restraint in the use of force and for respect of fundamental freedoms," foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said at a regular briefing.

University campus

In the capital Tunis, which has seen none of the violence taking place in other towns, students staged a march to denounce the police response to the rioting.

A Reuters reporter in Tunis said he saw tens of riot police encircling the al-Manar university faculty in a suburb of the city. Hundreds of students could be seen inside the courtyard, but police were preventing them from getting out and also blocking approaches to the campus.

But shops in downtown Tunis were open for business and the security deployment there was barely visible.

In provincial towns Thala, Gassrine, Seliana, Meknassi and Rgeb, army trucks were sent to reinforce police, residents said.

In a television address soon after the unrest broke out, President Ben Ali had warned that violent protests were unacceptable and would hurt national interests.

Labidi, appointed in a minor reshuffle after the unrest began, said on Sunday the government was ready for a dialogue with young people, in the strongest sign to date the authorities may be ready to make some concessions.

Ben Ali was re-elected two years ago with nearly 90 percent of the vote. He is Tunisia's second president since the former French colony obtained independence in 1956.

The United States has expressed concern about the government's handling of the protests.

The country of about 10 million people has in the past been praised by Western allies as a model of stability in the Arab world, though some international rights groups accuse it of stifling dissent.

Tunisia has applied to the EU, its biggest trading partner, for "advanced status", which could give it preferential trading terms. It said last month it plans a dual listing of state-run Tunisie Telecom on the Paris and Tunis stock exchanges.

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