Thursday, January 13, 2011
TUNIS: Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fired his interior minister Wednesday to try to staunch the worst unrest in decades, but fresh clashes with police broke out and witnesses said five people were killed.
The government has declared a nightly curfew starting Wednesday for the capital and surrounding suburbs, an official told Reuters.
The European Union condemned the “disproportionate” use of force by police while the U.N. human-rights chief called for an independent probe into the deadly violence.
Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannounchi, speaking at a news conference, said that the president had decided to appoint Ahmad Friaa, an academic and former junior minister viewed as a technocrat, as the new interior minister.
He did not give a reason for the change but he said the president “has announced the creation of a committee of investigation into corruption and to assess the mistakes of certain officials.”
Despite the deployment of the military in many areas and a heavy police presence, stone-throwing youths confronted police in a suburb of the capital and witnesses said there were renewed protests in two provincial towns.
People taking part in the unrest say they are angry about unemployment, corruption and what they say is government repression.
Officials said earlier this week that 23 civilians have been killed since the clashes first broke in December.
The curfew, which will continue for an indefinite period, will begin at 8 p.m. each night and end at 6 a.m. in the morning, said the official in the state’s communications agency.
In the Sahara desert town of Douz, three witnesses told Reuters at least four people had been killed by police fire, including one university professor.
Two witnesses told Reuters that police in the town of Thala, 200 kilometers southwest of Tunis, used teargas to try to disperse a crowd of people but when that had no effect they opened fire, killing 23-year-old Wajdi Sayhi. Officials could not immediately be reached to confirm the account. The victim was deaf, said his brother, Ramzi.
“The police told him to go home but he heard nothing, and they fired toward him,” he told Reuters by phone.
Adding to mounting international pressure on Tunisia over its handling of the protests, the E.U., Tunisia’s biggest trading partner, said the violence was unacceptable.“We cannot accept the disproportionate use of force by the police against peaceful demonstrators,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for E.U. foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told a regular briefing.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said he was “extremely concerned about the very high number of people killed in Tunisia in recent weeks.”
“It is imperative that the government launch a transparent, credible and independent investigation into the violence and killings,” she said.
Ghannounchi said a commission would probe alleged excesses by the security forces, and another would look into allegations of corruption by opposition and non-governmental groups.
He also announced the release of all those arrested in the unrest, “with the exception of those involved in acts of vandalism,” although he gave no figures.
Meanwhile, Denmark’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that there was a risk of terror attacks against Western targets in Tunisia. Berlin issued a statement warning about the “danger of kidnapping and attacks,” and Spain issued a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid inland Tunisia and to be careful in tourist areas along the coast.
U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton said Washington was not taking sides in escalating unrest in Tunisia, but called for a peaceful solution in an interview with Al-Arabiya television.
Military Humvee jeeps and armed soldiers were patrolling at least two locations in the center of Tunis Wednesday and most shops were shut. Witnesses said that thousands of people had gathered in the provincial town of Gassrine chanting “Ben Ali, go away!” – Agencies