TUNIS, Jan 4 (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 resumed after a brief lull.
“Hundreds of students took to the street this morning in solidarity with the youths of Sidi Bouzid. Jobless soon joined the protests which turned into clashes with the police who used tear gas to disperse the protesters,” eyewitness Belgacem Saihi said from the town of Thala where the protest took place.
Tunisian officials could not immediately comment on the accounts by Saihi, confirmed by Jamal Boulabi, who heads teachers union in Thala.
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 the police of his fruit and vegetable cart.
The Sidi Bouzid incident was embraced as a cause celebre by jobless graduates, unionists and human right activists in a country hailed by Western allies as a model of both stability and prosperity in the Arab world.
The protests later spread to other towns including the capital Tunis, Sousse and Sfax. According to French media, couple of jobless graduates have attempted suicide, with at least one dying after electrocuting himself to protest “misery and unemployment”.
Another jobless graduate was killed after police was forced to “shoot in self-defence” to quell rioters in the southern town of Bouziane, the government has said.
Teachers union’s Boulabi said students from the town’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 among teachers and students because of the tear gas,” Boulabi added.
Protests have been rare in Tunisia, which has known only two presidents since its independence from France 55 years ago. It has been ruled for the last 23 years by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Ben Ali works closely with Western governments to combat al Qaeda militants and is trying to win from main trade partner the European Union an ‘advanced status’ partnership, which implies a more scrupulous respect of public freedoms.
Until Tuesday, the wave of protests had abated after Ben Ali named a new youth minister in a minor government reshuffle and a new governor for Sidi Bouzid.
Ben Ali warned last week that violent protests were unacceptable and would hurt national interests after protests by graduates demanding mainly jobs. (Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Giles Elgood)