TUNISIA: Schools shuttered as protests continue; president promises jobs
Riots and protests continued Monday across Tunisia with opposition sources saying as many as 24 people have been killed in clashes between police and youths angry over unemployment and a lack of political freedom under the reign of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who took to the airwaves in an attempt to calm the nation.
In an "I-feel-your-pain" gambit, he promised to create 300,000 new jobs. But he also took a hard line against the protesters, blaming them for the violence.
"The events were violent, sometimes bloody, and caused the death of civilians and wounded several members of the security forces," he said. "The events were the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked."
Few bought Ben Ali's rhetoric. Security forces continued to be deployed in full force across the country. One local trade union source said that "the Tunisian authorities decisively deployed troops that were stationed in front of a number of government organization in the town of Thela" after a gathering by protesters and a strike by teachers to protest the shootings.
In response to huge rallies by college and high school students around the country, Ben Ali's education minister took the extraordinary step of cancelling all classes and shuttering all campuses, according to the country's official TAP news agency.
The government says only 14 people have been killed in weeks of violence across the country.
Tunisia's worst political violence in decades erupted after a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi attempted to commit suicide by publicly setting himself on fire because he could not find a job.
Critics of the government say it is corrupt and uses the threat of Islamists and the need for foreign investment as pretexts for repressive domestic policies that violate basic civil rights. The harsh reaction of the security forces against protesters has further angered the public.
On Sunday, a group of opposition parties called for an immediate cessation of the security forces practice of opening fire on civilians and demanded that police and soldiers who do so be taken to court. The Tunisian League of Human Rights also called for the right to assemble and to demonstrate peacefully.
Tunisia's Interior Ministry issued a statement insisting that security forces were acting in self-defense.
France, which has cozy relations with Ben Ali, tepidly spoke out against the violence, voicing regret for what was happening in Tunisia, calling for calm and arguing that only dialogue could solve the country's economic and social problems.
"We regret the violence which killed the victims and we call for calm," Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said of France's former colonial ward.
— Soufiane Chourabi in Tunis
Top photo: A demonstrator stands in the smoke of a burning barricade as he shouts at police (background) in a street in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on Monday. Credit: EPA
Second photo: Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine ben Ali makes his televised address in Tunis. Credit: Reuters
Third photo: Tunisian security forces face demonstrators during clashes on Monday in Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Bottom photo: Youths at a demonstration in Sidi Bouzid on Monday. Credit: Associated Press