By Agence France Presse (AFP)
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
TUNIS: Police fired into the air to disperse a crowd ransacking buildings in a Tunis suburb Tuesday night, the first time Tunisia’s capital has been hit by a wave of violent unrest that the government says has killed 23 civilians.
Conflicting reports have emerged on the number of fatalities with a union official saying that 50 people have been killed over three days and a Paris-based human rights groups putting the death toll at 35. But the government dismissed such reports as “totally false.”
A Reuters reporter in the working class Ettadamen neighborhood said he saw hundreds of youths throwing stones at police and then smashing shops and setting fire to a bank.
He said the crowd had blocked the roads with burning tires, set fire to a bus and two cars and also set fire to a local government office. “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God,” the crowds chanted.
Reports of the clashes emerged minutes after Tunisia’s government raised by another three the total death toll from the unrest, the worst in decades.
Until Tuesday evening there had been no reports of major new clashes after the army was deployed in the most restive towns, schools and universities were shut indefinitely and police with loudhailers ordered people in at least one town not to gather in the streets.
After calls by the United Nations and Europe for restraint, groups of artists, actors, lawyers and journalists tried to demonstrate earlier Tuesday against the harsh crackdown but were prevented by security forces, they said.
“We wanted to peacefully express our anger and our indignation,” theater employee Fadhel Jaibi said after police broke up a gathering outside the municipal theater against “violence and excessive use of force.” Two actresses were beaten by security forces. “Shame on you!” shouted one of them, Sana Daoud, as another was shoved to the ground.
Staff at the regional hospital in Kasserine, 290 kilometers south of the capital Tunis, meanwhile halted work for an hour to condemn the causing of such a high number of victims. “It is chaos in Kasserine after a night of violence, of sniper firing and pillaging,” said Sadok Mahmoudi from the regional branch of the Tunisian General Union of Labor. “The number killed has passed 50,” he said, citing figures issued by medical staff in the town’s hospital for the past three days.
However, Tunisian Communications Minister Samir Labidi told a news conference that the death toll from clashes in the past few days was 21 – or three more than previously announced.
Another two people were killed in clashes earlier in the unrest, which has now been continuing for almost a month. A further two committed suicide in acts of protest. “All other figures given by television and agencies which talk about 40 or 50 [dead] are totally false,” Labidi said. “Religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left have infiltrated these protests and pushed for violence,” he added. Addressing the grievances of some of those involved in the clashes, he said: “Our response to the demands of the young people is economic and social reforms and more opening up towards liberty.”
Souhayr Belhassan, who chairs the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, had earlier told Reuters the figure established by her organization was 35 people dead. “The toll … could get worse,” she said.
People taking part in the weeks of clashes say they want jobs and better living conditions, but the authorities said the protests were hijacked by a minority of violent extremists. They said the victims were killed when police fired in self-defense.
Tunisia has been bracing for international reaction to its handling of the protests. However former colonial ally France, which still carries influence in the North African country, responded without apportioning blame for the deaths.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said in Paris that “we cannot but deplore the violence” after opposition criticism of the government’s muted response. The U.S. State Department expressed concern Tuesday about reports that Tunisian security forces were using “excessive force.”
Some of those taking part in the protests have also directed criticism at President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. – Reuters, A.F.P.