Latest update: 11/01/2011
- riots - Tunisia - unemployment - unrest - Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
Tunisia death toll rising after weeks of protests over jobs
The Tunisian government reported that four more people were killed on Monday in continuing unrest over unemployment, bringing the death toll to at least 20. Human rights groups estimate the number of deaths in weeks of protests to be at least 35.
REUTERS - Tunisia's government on Tuesday reported four more civilians killed in the worst civil unrest for decades, bringing its toll from weeks of violence to 20, but human rights groups put the death count higher.
The interior ministry said four civilians were killed in clashes on Monday in Gassrine, about 200 km (125 miles) southwest of the capital, a focus of protests at the weekend.
"The town of Gassrine experienced violence, arson and groups attacking police stations ... armed with Molotov cocktails and iron bars," the ministry said in a statement.
"The police were obliged to defend themselves. They fired warning shots in the air but the throwing of Molotov cocktails intensified and this caused four deaths among the attackers and eight cases of injuries and burns among the police."
Witnesses reported separately that anti-riot police fired tear gas as new protests broke out overnight in two other towns in the west of Tunisia, despite a pledge by the president to create 300,000 jobs before the end of 2012.
The Tunisian government on Monday ordered the indefinite closure of all schools and universities in an attempt to stamp out clashes with police.
The latest official death toll for the last 72 hours was 18 dead, with another two killed in earlier clashes. Two people also committed suicide in acts of protest.
Amnesty International gave a figure of 23 dead, while Souhayr Belhassan, who chairs the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, told Reuters the figure was 35 people killed. "The toll ... could get worse," she said.
Protesters say they are demanding jobs, but President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, facing the worst unrest of his 23-year rule, said on Monday the rioting was a "terrorist act", orchestrated by foreign parties who were trying to damage Tunisia.
A few hopeful Tunisians trickled into a job centre in the capital on Tuesday, encouraged by the president's promise to cut graduate unemployment.
But the pledge failed to appease some poorer areas in Tunisia, an Arab country of about 10 million people.
Witnesses, who asked not to be named, said police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the towns of El-Kef and Gafsa after Ben Ali's televised speech.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. Officials could not immediately comment on the accounts by witnesses.
Ben Ali is bracing for greater scrutiny and pressure from the international community after the clashes. Former colonial power France said it deplored the violence but did not apportion responsibility.
"We also appeal for calm because only dialogue will resolve the economic and social problems in Tunisia," French government spokesman Francois Baroin said on Europe 1 radio.
Earlier, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the escalation of violence and called for restraint. The European Union, Tunisia's biggest trade partner, said it deplored the loss of life.
The government sent the military onto the streets in the worst-hit areas late on Sunday in an effort to restore order.
In Tunis, where there was a rare protest by students on Monday, the gates of schools were closed and there was little sign of any extra police presence in the streets which, as usual, were decorated with portraits of Ben Ali.
About a hundred journalists from Tunisian newspapers gathered in the journalists union headquarters in Tunis to protest what they said were government restrictions on reporting of the violence.
The journalists held up photos of people killed in the clashes and chanted "Freedom for the Tunisian press." Their action is unusual because the domestic media is deferential to the government.
"We must no longer be a loud-hailer for the government's propaganda. We must take back our freedom," said Naji Baghouri, a former head of the journalists' union.
In front of the Lafayette job centre in the capital, a handful of young Tunisians stood in line to see if they could take advantage of Ben Ali's job creation pledge.
"The president's speech gave us new hope ... I have a master's degree in economy and I have been jobless for four years. I hope I will get lucky and land a job soon," said Hamdi, from the town of Sidi Bouzid where the unrest began last month.