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Tunisia protests and deaths continue amid government moves

Resentment in Tunisia over rising unemployment has turned into rage against the government of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali after a crackdown that has reportedly left as many as 50 people dead.

January 13, 2011|Times Staff and Wire Reports

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — Security forces and tanks streamed into the center of the capital, and 11 people were reported killed in clashes across Tunisia on Wednesday as authorities scrambled to quell mounting anti-government protests.

Government buildings were surrounded with barbed wire to protect against protesters angry over economic stagnation, political repression and violence against demonstrators in previous recent protests. The interior minister was fired; an 8 p.m. curfew was imposed in Tunis, the capital; and officials pledged to release detainees rounded up in recent unrest.

But violence between police and demonstrators demanding jobs and political freedom was nonetheless reported during the preceding 48 hours in the suburbs of Tunis as well as in the cities of Sfax, Hammamet, Nabeul and Douz.

In the beach resort of Hammamet, protesters attacked a police station and six people were reportedly killed, including a bystander shot in the heart while crossing a square, a resident said. In Nabeul, 40 miles southeast of the capital, protesters set fire to government buildings and an outlet of the French supermarket chain Carrefour, according to a witness.

In Tunis, authorities used tear gas to battle stone-throwing youths. Uniformed men were positioned at corners, scrutinizing passing vehicles. On Avenue Mohammed V, the headquarters of the pro-government political party was cordoned off and barricaded.

Usually crowded squares and subway stations were deserted, normally bustling shops were closed, and banks were shuttered by early afternoon.

Resentment over rising unemployment has turned into widespread rage against the government of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali after a brutal crackdown that has reportedly taken the lives of as many as 50 people, according to human rights organizations and labor unions. The government has acknowledged 21 deaths.

The pan-Arab Al Jazeera television news network reported that at least five more people were killed Wednesday, including a 14-year-old boy and a university professor. Graphic videos posted on the Internet appeared to show the body of the youth being held aloft by angry crowds, and a separate video showed the professor lying face down in a pool of blood.

Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia since 1987, has been struggling to cool public anger while taking a hard line against protesters.

On Thursday, the Tunisian parliament is set to convene "an exceptional session" to discuss new economic and job-creation plans, state television reported.

The United States has tacitly thrown its support behind the protesters. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to praise the Tunisian people during a meeting with Qatari leaders in Doha.

"There's no problem with people peacefully demonstrating and protesting — it's going on in Tunisia right now," she said. "We support peaceful protest and the right of assembly."

France, Tunisia's former colonial master, has taken the side of the government, offering to provide additional hardware to its security forces, according to Liberation, a French daily.

The protests were sparked Dec. 17 by a 26-year-old university graduate who set himself on fire after police harassed him for selling fruit and vegetables in the street. General protests followed against Ben Ali's authoritarian rule.

A special correspondent in Tunis contributed to this report.

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