TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police used tear gas to disperse a protest by hundreds of students on Tuesday in a town in the west of the country, witnesses said, as violent protests broke out again after a brief lull.
“Hundreds of students took to the streets this morning in solidarity with the youths of Sidi Bouzid. Jobless (people) soon joined the protests which turned into clashes with the police, who used tear gas to disperse the protesters,” eyewitness Belgacem Saihi said from Thala, where the protest took place.
Tunisian officials could not immediately comment on the account given by Saihi, but it was confirmed by Jamal Boulabi, who heads the teachers’ union in Thala.
Boulabi said students from Thala’s four colleges took part in the protest. “They (police) are now surrounding teachers and students inside our college, refusing to let anyone leave the college ... There are some cases of asphyxiation ... because of the tear gas”.
Clashes started last month in the central town of Sidi Bouzid after a man in his twenties attempted suicide by setting himself on fire in front of a government building to protest against the confiscation by police of his fruit and vegetable cart.
The incident was embraced as a cause celebre by jobless graduates, unionists and human right activists, and the protests later spread to other towns including the capital Tunis.
Until recently protests have been rare in Tunisia, a country hailed by Western allies as a model of stability and prosperity in the Arab world, and one which has had only two presidents since independence from France 55 years ago.
According to French media two jobless graduates have tried to kill themselves, at least one dying after electrocuting himself to protest against “misery and unemployment”.
Another young Tunisian was killed when police were forced to “shoot in self-defence” to quell rioters in the southern town of Bouziane, the government said.
Tunisia has been ruled for the last 23 years by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who works closely with Western governments to combat al Qaeda militants.
He is trying to win from the country’s main trade partner, the European Union, an ‘advanced status’ partnership, which implies a more scrupulous respect of public freedoms.
The government has accused its opponents of manipulating the Sidi Bouzid clashes last month to discredit the authorities, and Ben Ali later said that violent protests were unacceptable and would hurt national interests.
The wave of protests had died down after Ben Ali named a new youth minister in a minor government reshuffle — the second in 2010 — and a new governor for Sidi Bouzid. Official media said he had also ordered that 6.5 billion dinars be mobilised to cut graduate unemployment, now around 25 percent.
Tunisia has become a regional focus of attention for financial institutions since announcing a plan to complete current account convertibility during 2010-12, and full dinar convertibility in 2013-14.
Security technology company Sophos said on Monday that “hacktivists” from a group calling itself ‘Anonymous’ had struck some official Tunisian websites, including those of Ben Ali, the government and the Tunisian stock exchange.
The attack was in “retaliation” for what the group called “war on free speech and democracy” and the blocking by Tunisia of access to secret U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.
“Your citizens rally in the streets to demand accountability and their own rights, which you have wrongfully presumed it was in your purview to take from them,” the group said in a statement posted on several websites.
Asked to confirm the Sophos report, an official at the Tunisian information technology regulator said “There is a problem but we don’t know yet what it is all about. It’s beyond us”.