May 6, 2011 / 1:18 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 4-Tunisian police battle anti-government protesters

* Most violent confrontation for weeks

* Protesters fear meddling by loyalists of former govt

* Tension rose after comment on possible coup

(Updates with injured police, apology to journalists)

By Zoubeir Souissi and Matt Robinson

TUNIS, May 6 (Reuters) - Tunisian police battled hundreds of protesters demanding the government’s resignation on Friday in the most violent confrontations for weeks with pro-democracy demonstrators.

Tension has risen in the North African country, whose “Jasmine Revolution” inspired uprisings across the Arab world, after a former minister warned of a possible coup by loyalists of the ousted government if Islamists win elections.

“The people want a new revolution,” chanted protesters on Avenue Bourguiba in the heart of Tunis.

Protesters said that, even though Tunisia’s interim administration had denounced the warning of a possible coup, it raised fears that a suspected plot could be used to derail reforms meant to lead to an election in July.

Police used teargas and batons to break up a demonstration after Friday prayers, but protesters regrouped as dusk fell, throwing stones and setting a fire in the middle of one of the capital’s main streets. Riot police scuffled with protesters.

The Interior Ministry said four members of the security forces were injured, of whom one was in critical condition. It did not say if any of the protesters were injured or how many were arrested.

Former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by street protests in January after 23 years in power and an interim administration has promised elections in July for an assembly to draw up a new constitution.

Protesters said they did not trust Tunisia’s rulers and feared meddling by Ben Ali loyalists.

“We are here to demand the departure of this government, which is dishonest,” said demonstrator Sonia Briki.

“We want them to step down so we can have a government whose members are just at the service of the people.”

ISLAMIST RISE

Trouble began on Thursday when former Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi said there could be a coup if Islamists won the election, a statement denounced by the government.

A common thread running through uprisings across the Arab world sparked by the one in Tunisia has been unease among secularists and in the West about whether democracy would open the door to Islamic rule.

Tunisia’s main Islamist group, Ennahda, led by moderate Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi and banned under Ben Ali, says it will contest the elections and does not fear a coup.

It is expected to do well in some parts of the country of 10 million people, particularly the conservative south, where deep frustration over poverty and unemployment helped inspire the revolution.

The official TAP news agency reported unrest overnight in the central province of Gafsa and said curfews had been imposed in three towns there.

Warning of a “possible return to the oppressive practices of the previous regime”, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists complained that 14 reporters had been beaten or manhandled during protests this week.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement apologising for the treatment of journalists on Friday.

Tunisia’s turmoil and the conflict in neighbouring Libya have badly dented an economy that lacks the oil and gas resources of its neighbours, driving thousands of young Tunisians to leave for Europe in search of jobs.

The Tunis-based African Development Bank, one of the biggest lenders to Tunisia, said Europe should be doing more to help Tunisia back on to its feet.

“If they fail, I think Tunisia will pull through, but they may pull through in a different way,” regional representative Jacob Kolster told Reuters. “Maybe slower, more risky, maybe where there are more risks of reversals than if there were a real firm helping hand across the pond.” (Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Dehiba and Souhail Karam in Rabat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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