Tunisian president slams unrest, promises jobs

AFP, Tuesday 11 Jan 2011

Tunisia's president blames unrest on "gangs of thugs" and pledges new jobs

Tunisia president
Tunisia's President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, seen in this video grab taken from Tunisian television, makes a televised address in Tunis 10 January 2011. (Reuters)

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali blamed weekend rioting that left at least 14 people dead on "gangs of thugs", dismissing increasing concern from the international community.

Ben Ali also pledged in a television address Monday that his government would create 300,000 new jobs to tackle the unemployment seen by many as the core of the weeks of unrest that escalated at the weekend.

To try to stem the unrest, the government has closed all schools and universities from Tuesday until further notice.

But fresh clashes erupted Monday after weekend clashes in which security forces opened fire on protesters.

Ben Ali blamed the violence on "hostile elements in the pay of foreigners, who have sold their soul to extremism and terrorism, and are manipulated from outside the country."

These groups, which he did not identify, incited violence and encouraged people to demonstrate by spreading false information and "slogans of despair", he said.

He has previously accused the opposition of exploiting the situation, with the protests kicking off after a university student set himself alight in a work protest on 17 December.

The European Union and France called for restraint and calm as the new protests broke out Monday. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint, dialogue and full respect for free expression.

But Tunisia summoned the US ambassador Gordon Gray after Washington last week condemned the crackdown on rioters.

Saida Chtioui, secretary of state in the foreign ministry, expressed her "surprise" at the US State Department's criticism, Tunisia's state news agency TAP reported.

It had been based on "information gathered from hostile elements", she said.

"We wonder about the reaction of the American authorities to a so-called peaceful demonstration, during which Molotov cocktails were thrown and premises were vandalised and burned," she added.

Chtioui denied any sites had been blocked and said the bloggers had been released.

The government has said 14 people were killed over the weekend, but that its forces had acted in self defence. The opposition says at least 20 have died.

There were more clashes Monday in the towns of Kasserine, Thala and Regueb, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators while security forces were on alert in the capital.

A union member shot in Sunday's unrest died of bullet wounds Monday in hospital in Kasserine, 290 kilometres south of Tunis, said Sadok Mahmoudi from the regional branch of the UGTT workers union.

The hospital, under army control, was treating a "great number" of wounded, he said.

In the central town of Regueb, police dispersed protesters who had gathered as five people who died in the weekend's violence were being buried, an AFP reporter said.

In Tunis, anti-riot police used truncheons to disperse thousands of young people protesting at Passage square in the city centre.

The youths had been called to the demonstration via Facebook, which posted the national flag drenched in blood on its wall in a sign of revolt against the weekend violence.

Ben Ali Monday also called a national conference on unemployment for February and urged regional officials to improve "channels of contact with the people, to listen to their concerns."

Tunisia's unemployment rate is officially 14 percent, but the percentage of graduates without work is about double that.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "We call for restraint in the use of force and for respect of fundamental freedoms."

She also called for the "immediate release from detention of bloggers, journalists, lawyers and other people who were detained, who were peacefully demonstrating in Tunisia."

France called for restraint. "We deplore the violence, which caused casualties, and call for calm," said French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.

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