Army deployed in bid to calm Tunisia riots

 

TROOPS took up positions in the Tunisian capital and a civilian was reported killed during clashes elsewhere in the country yesterday as the president tried to quell protesters’ anger by sacking his interior minister.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had earlier denounced the protests as the work of “outside powers and masked gangs”, included the minister’s dismissal in a package of conciliatory gestures aimed at calming the worst social unrest of his 23 years in office. He said all those arrested in weeks of clashes with police would be released and initiated an inquiry into corruption claims.

Pressure on the government has grown in recent days, as the rising death toll and the outbreak of violence in the capital has brought sharper criticism from western powers. The government says 21 civilians have died so far during the disturbances, although trade unions claim the true figure is higher.

The news agency Reuters reported another death yesterday in the town of Thala, 200km southwest of Tunis. Citing witnesses, it said police used tear gas to try to disperse a crowd but when that had no effect they opened fire, killing a 23-year-old man.

The US and EU, whose reservations about Mr Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime are tempered by his country’s relative stability and his tough stance against radical Islamism, yesterday reiterated their concern over the “disproportionate” use of force by the state.

“This violence is unacceptable. The perpetrators must be identified and brought before the courts,” said a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. “And we cannot accept the disproportionate use of force by the police against peaceful demonstrators.

“The Tunisian authorities should do everything they can to bring calm and to address the underlying social issues.”

The comments echoed a statement from the US state department, which said it was “deeply concerned by reports of the use of excessive force by the government of Tunisia”.

Troops were deployed on the streets of Tunis yesterday for the first time since the unrest began last month, with armoured vehicles and soldiers reportedly taking up positions at major intersections and at the entrance to a suburb where rioters burned cars and attacked government offices on Tuesday night.

The authorities declared a nightly curfew for the capital and surrounding suburbs.

The wave of protest began last month in the region of Sidi Bouzid after a 26-year-old university graduate set himself alight after police confiscated his fruit and vegetable car. He later died. The incident resonated widely in a country where youth unemployment is double the national average of 15 per cent.

Mr Ben Ali has already responded to the unrest by promising to create new jobs and cut taxes on firms that hire young people.

In a carefully worded statement, the French foreign ministry said the situation in its former colony “calls more than ever for calm and dialogue”.

“The right to protest must be guaranteed just as much as the right to security,” the statement added.