Tunisia plays down clashes in provincial town

Dec 21, 2010

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s government accused its opponents on Monday of manipulating clashes at the weekend between police and young people in a provincial town to discredit the authorities.

Two witnesses told Reuters that rioting resumed late on Monday in the town of Sidi Bouzid, with hundreds of youths confronting police who used tear gas to try to disperse them.

Riots are extremely rare for Tunisia, which has been run for 23 years by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and works closely with Western governments to combat al Qaeda militants.

At the weekend, several hundred youths in Sidi Bouzid, about 200 km (125 miles) south-west of the capital, smashed windows, damaged cars and fought with police, witnesses said.

They were angered by an incident where a young man set fire to himself in protest after police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling from a street stall, witnesses said.

Some local people said the case had unleashed pent-up anger about unemployment in Tunisia, which has seen economic growth slow because of the downturn in the European Union, its main trading partner.

In the first official response, Tunisia’s state-run news agency quoted what it called an official source as saying the incident had been blown out of proportion.

“As much as we regret this painful incident, we are outraged by attempts to use this isolated incident, to take it out of its true context and to exploit it for unhealthy political ends,” the TAP news agency quoted the source as saying.

The government’s opponents were turning the case, “with the aim of manipulation and provocation, into a case of human rights and freedoms and putting in doubt the achievements of development in the region,” the source was quoted as saying.

A resident of Sidi Bouzid, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said by telephone that young people were rioting again in several parts of the town on Monday night, but on a smaller scale than the violence at the weekend.

There was no official confirmation of any resumption of the violence on Monday.

Tunisia is one of the most stable and prosperous countries in the region. Some international rights groups accuse the government of crushing dissent, an allegation it denies.

Another local witness told Reuters: “The clashes have started again this evening. Hundreds of young men are throwing stones at the police and they are responding with (tear) gas.”

“The young men have got into a high school and smashed the windows, and they have also set fire to tyres,” said the second witness.

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