Last Updated: Wed Jan 12, 2011 23:54 pm (KSA) 20:54 pm (GMT)

Tunisia fires minister as new clashes erupt

 

Tunisia deployed troops in the capital and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew Wednesday as weeks of violent protests reached the city and new clashes erupted further south with two people reported killed.

Under pressure after security forces opened fire on demonstrators over the weekend, killing between 20 and 50 people, the government fired the interior minister and said it would investigate alleged use of excessive force.

In a sign of increasing concern at the spreading protests over rising food prices and unemployment, troops rolled into the capital on armored vehicles and trucks and took up positions at major intersections.

Soldiers guarded the entrance to the Ettadhamen quarter where rioters burnt vehicles and attacked government offices late Tuesday.

The presence of the army on the streets failed to prevent fresh violence in the centre on Wednesday as security forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators, an AFP reporter said.

The interior ministry ordered a curfew from 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) Wednesday to 5:30 am Thursday, citing "disturbances, pillaging and attacks against people and property which have occurred in some districts of the city".

Military Humvee jeeps and armed soldiers were patrolling at least two locations in the centre of Tunis on Wednesday and most shops were shut. Witnesses said thousands of people gathered in the provincial town of Gassrine chanting "Ben Ali, go away!."

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced the dismissal of interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, the minister in charge of the police, whose brutal crackdown of the demonstrations has attracted international condemnation.

Some analysts say the Tunisian government is likely to be able to contain the unrest but that in the longer term Ben Ali could find himself weakened and his opponents emboldened.

Adding to mounting international pressure on Tunisia over its handling of the protests, the European Union, Tunisia's biggest trading partner, said the violence was unacceptable.

"We cannot accept the disproportionate use of force by the police against peaceful demonstrators," Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for E.U. foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told a regular briefing.

Some international human rights groups say the death count is higher than officials admit. The government dismissed. It says the deaths came about when police fired in self-defense on rioters armed with petrol bombs and sticks.

Concessions

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannounchi, speaking at a news conference, said that the president had decided to appoint Ahmed Friaa, an academic and former junior minister viewed as a technocrat, as the new interior minister.

He did not give a reason for the change but he said the president "has announced the creation of a committee of investigation into corruption and to assess the mistakes of certain officials."

In further concessions, he said Ben Ali had decided to free everybody detained over for taking part in the riots and promised financial help to jobless graduates -- a group whose grievances have been a driving force behind the unrest.

The prime minister said a commission would investigate alleged excesses by the security forces, and another would look into allegations of corruption by opposition and non-governmental groups..

He also announced the release of all those arrested in the unrest, "with the exception of those involved in acts of vandalism," although he gave no figures.

Soldiers deployed in Tunis were there "solely to protect public institutions against acts of vandalism and looting," he said.

The violence spread south Wednesday with new clashes in the towns of Douz and Sfax.

The protests, now entering their fourth week, are being watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest.

Officials said the civilian deaths -- almost all of them in clashes in
provincial towns at the weekend -- came about when police fired on rioters in legitimate self-defense.

Until Tuesday evening there had been no reports of major new clashes after the army was deployed in the most restive towns, schools and universities were shut indefinitely and police with loudhailers ordered people in at least one town not to gather in the streets.

The main focus of the protests has been bread-and-butter issues but some of those taking part have criticized President Ben Ali, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

In a bid to quell the protests, Ben Ali announced in a televised address Monday the creation of 300,000 jobs on top of 50,000 already pledged for the regions, but branded the protesters "gangs of thugs".

He said the rioting was a "terrorist act", orchestrated by foreign forces trying to damage Tunisia.

In the strongest U.S. statement on the violence to date, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was "deeply concerned by reports of the use of excessive force by the government of Tunisia".

The United Nations and Europe also called for restraint earlier in the week.

Groups of artists, actors, lawyers and journalists tried to demonstrate Tuesday after the weekend deaths, but were prevented by security forces, they said.

Tunisia's unemployment rate is officially 14 percent, but the percentage of graduates without work is about double that.

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