Anger grows in Tunisia as 50 reported killed in riots

Tunis–Anger over a crackdown on protesters in Tunisia grew Tuesday as a union official said 50 were killed in three days of unrest while artists and hospital staff joined demonstrations.

Locals reported looting in the town of Kasserine overnight and said demonstrators were fired upon from rooftops. Meanwhile schools and universities across the country were shut as the government tried to quell weeks of protests centred on unemployment.

A union official told AFP that at least 50 people were killed over three days in Kasserine, one of three remote, farming areas with high rates of youth unemployment that have seen the worst of the violence. "The number killed has passed 50," said Sadok Mahmoudi from the regional branch of the Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT), citing tolls issued by medical staff in the regional hospital.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said at least 35 people were killed in the weekend unrest. "We have a list of the names of the 35," FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen told AFP. "The total figure is higher. It's somewhere around 50, but that's an estimate."

The authorities have admitted that 14 people were killed but insisted that security forces acted in self-defence. "It is chaos in Kasserine after a night of violence, of sniper firing and pillaging," Mahmoudi said.

Staff at the regional hospital in Kasserine, 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of the capital Tunis, halted work for an hour on Tuesday to protest the high number of victims of the government crackdown, an official said.

Police meanwhile broke up a demonstration of artists and actors outside a municipal theatre in the capital, an AFP journalist said.

The gathering was "to condemn the violence and excessive use of force," theatre employee Fadhel Jaibi said. "We wanted to peacefully express our anger and our indignation," he said as police moved him off.

Two actresses were beaten by security forces. "Shame on you!" shouted one of them, Sana Daoud, as another was shoved to the ground.

"It our right to demonstrate," protested another actress, Jalila Baccar.

Tension was high in the city with students calling for mass protests on Facebook pages that showed the Tunisian flag stained in blood, while people shared images said to be of the dead and wounded in Kasserine.

The rare wave of protests in tightly controlled Tunisia was unleashed by the December 17 suicide attempt of a 26-year-old graduate who set himself on fire after police prevented him from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living.

Mohamed Bouazizi died in hospital last week in the central Sidi Bouzid area.

Another suicide was reported Tuesday in the same area, with relatives of 23-year-old unemployed university student, Allaa Hidouri, saying he had electrocuted himself. It was the fifth suicide linked to the protests.

The European Union, France, the United Nations and the United States have expressed alarm over the crackdown, and called on President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime to show restraint.

In reaction to the protests, Ben Ali announced the creation of 300,000 jobs in a televised address on Monday on top of 50,000 already pledged for the regions. But he described the protesters as "gangs of thugs" who had sold out to "terrorism and extremism".

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

Education ministries meanwhile ordered schools and universities to be closed indefinitely, after clashes Monday on campuses in Tunisia. "After the trouble in certain establishments, it has been decided to suspend classes from Tuesday until a new order," they said.

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