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FRANCE 24 reporter says Tunisian police shot ‘blindly’
FRANCE 24 journalist David Thomson was reporting on protests in the Tunisian farming town of Siliana when he was shot by police on November 28. Recovering in a hospital outside Paris, Thomson recounted the experience.
David Thomson, a correspondent for FRANCE 24 and RFI based in Tunis, still has 40 lead shotgun pellets in his body.
As long as there is no risk of one of them blocking an artery -- something doctors will verify in the coming days -- they will remain there for the rest of his life.
Thomson sustained the injuries to his leg while filming a report on protesters in Siliana, a poor farming town southwest of Tunis, who have been calling for the regional governor to step down, for local authorities to boost economic development and for the release of 14 demonstrators arrested last year.
Initially treated by doctors in La Marsa, a coastal town near Tunis, Thomson had 14 bullet pellets removed. He was transferred to a hospital outside Paris on Sunday.
Tunisian authorities have not apologised for the incident. “I’m not necessarily asking for an apology,” Thomson explained. “But that would be necessary for the protesters who were shot in the eyes.”
Overwhelmed, police shoot at crowds ‘blindly’
Thomson, accompanied by Tunisian journalist Hamdi Tlili, headed to Siliana on November 28, the second day of clashes between protesters and police triggered by a general strike called by Tunisia's main trade union.
“I wasn’t fully aware of the gravity of these protests,” Thomson said. “I’ve never seen such violence in the two years I’ve been reporting in Tunisia. Smoke was billowing out of the town centre, tyres were burning.” After alerting the police and the national guard to their presence, the two journalists went to interview the protesters, some of whom were hooded and threw stones.
“We were very warmly welcomed by the young protesters, who explained to us what they were asking for: reforms to open up the city [to the rest of Tunisia] by building infrastructure and helping the economy out of its rut,” Thomson recalled. “While we were at the front of the demonstration, the police fired teargas at the crowds, which dispersed toward an adjacent street. That’s when, without warning, the police opened fire with buckshot.”
Protesters ‘ready to be martyrs’
Thomson went on to describe the chaos that ensued. “I was on the ground. Hamdi, who was hit in the back, carried me to the ambulance, which was already filled with people who were more seriously injured than we were,” he said. “Many of them were going to lose an eye.”
Though he was wearing a FRANCE 24 logo on his clothing that day, Thomson does not think he was targeted because he is a journalist. “The police were shooting blindly,” he said. “They were overwhelmed … they shot lead pellets, whereas the protesters were wielding only rocks.”
The aggressive police response did little to undermine the fervor of the demonstrators. “These young protesters are ready to be martyrs,” Thomson said. “They are not afraid of getting hurt.”
The protests in Siliana were a turning point for Tunisia, according to Thomson. “These are the longest riots since legislative elections one year ago,” he said.
Officials from Ennahda, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, have admitted behind closed doors that they fear the fallout from disappointed Tunisians who have not seen everyday conditions improve over the past year. The riots in Siliana, moreover, were preceded by others in Sidi Bouzid and Gabès.
The Tunisian General Labour Union on Sunday called for an end to the general strike that sparked the Siliana protests after reaching a deal with the government that would sideline the regional governor, Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi, in line with protester demands. The deal would see Mahjoubi's deputy take over his responsibilities.
For the moment, the government remains in damage-control mode, trying to appease protesters and downplaying the severity of clashes with police. Samir Dilou, the minister of human rights, told a Tunisian radio programme on Monday that injuries from buckshot are generally not serious.