TUNIS (Reuters) - Fourteen civilians were killed in clashes with Tunisian police in the past 24 hours, official media and the government said on Sunday, in the worst violence in the country for decades.
The latest incidents are the deadliest in a wave of unrest which has lasted nearly a month. People taking part say they are angry at a lack of jobs, but officials say the rioting is the work of a minority of violent extremists intent on damaging Tunisia.
An opposition leader said to avoid more bloodshed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali should order police to stop using fire arms. Officials said police had only fired in self-defence when violent crowds attacked, ignoring warning shots.
The government earlier issued a statement saying eight people had been killed in clashes in the towns of Thala and Gassrine, both near the border with Algeria, since Saturday night.
Tunisia’s official TAP news agency later said four civilians were killed in clashes in a third town, Rgeb, about 210 km (131 miles) west of the capital, and that a further two people had been killed in Gassrine province.
The people who were killed had been armed with petrol bombs, stones and sticks and were attacking public property, the agency said. Several police officers had also been wounded, some of them seriously, it said.
“(Law enforcement officers) are doing nothing more than carrying out their legal and legitimate mission to maintain order and guarantee the safety and liberty of citizens,” the government said in an earlier statement.
“What no democratic state will allow ... is the resort to violence and the use by certain extremists of prohibited weapons such as Molotov cocktails and fire bombs and the throwing of stones against people and public and private property,” it said.
Chokri Hayouni, a witness in Gassrine, the administrative centre of the region where Thala is located, told Reuters by telephone: “Young men are throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and the police are opening fire everywhere in the streets.”
Government officials did not respond to phone calls from Reuters seeking comment on the casualties. Staff at the local hospital in Rgeb refused to answer questions.
Unrest in the past few days in neighbouring Algeria over unemployment and food prices has killed two people and injured hundreds, officials said. The violence in Algeria appeared to have subsided on Sunday and there was no evidence of any link to the Tunisian unrest.
Nejib Chebbi, founder of Tunisia’s PDP opposition party, said in a statement sent to the media that an end to the use of fire arms was needed “to spare the lives of innocent citizens and to respect their right to protest peacefully.”
Chebbi’s party has no seats in parliament but Western diplomats say he is the most credible leader in Tunisia’s weak and divided opposition.
Earlier, at least six residents in Thala who spoke by telephone to Reuters said they had seen several military vehicles enter the town late on Saturday.
There had been no previous reports of the military being brought in to help police quell the rioting. Officials could not be reached to comment on military involvement.
President Ben Ali has said the violent protests are unacceptable and could discourage investors and tourists who provide a large part of the country’s revenues.
Tunisian authorities say they have responded to protesters’ grievances by launching, with employers, a programme to urgently give jobs to 50,000 unemployed graduates.
The United States said on Friday it called in Tunisia’s ambassador in Washington to express concern about the protests. The country has in the past been praised by Western allies as a model of stability in the Arab world.
Before this weekend’s violence, two people had been killed in the unrest. Another two killed themselves in acts of protest, including one man who set himself on fire last month, triggering the series of riots.
Tunisia has recorded strong economic growth in the past decade but it has not been fast enough to satisfy demand for jobs. This is particularly acute among the young in the interior of the country, away from the more prosperous coastal areas.
Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Elizabeth Fullerton