Clashes erupted Thursday between Tunisian police and anti-government protesters in the central town of Siliana as unrest raged into a third day and spread to other parts of the deprived region.
Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas at hundreds of protesters trying to storm a police station in Siliana a day after more than 250 people were wounded in the town during clashes with police, AFP journalists reported.
The protesters, angry at the government’s failure to improve living standards, are demanding the resignation of the government-appointed regional governor, funds to boost development and the release of demonstrators arrested in April last year.
Similar grievances fuelled the Arab Spring uprising that toppled veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali early last year.
Police chased the protesters with batons in the surrounding streets while some among the crowd hurled rocks in response.
“We are demanding the departure of all these reinforcements. We will not accept the police agents of Siliana,” one protester said.
An ambulance was seen taking injured people to hospital, although the number of wounded was not immediately clear.
Protests also degenerated into violence in several localities nearby.
In the town of Kesra, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Siliana, dozens of protesters torched a security post and two police vehicles, after police fired tear gas in a bid to stop them from storming the building, witnesses said.
“Around 30 people set the place on fire,” said Ali, 17, a youth standing near the building with his friends.
The offices of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda in Kesra were also attacked and documents burned, witnesses said.
Police and hospital sources were not immediately available to confirm how many people were injured in the unrest.
And in the Gaafour locality, north of Siliana, protesters hurled rocks at police and army trucks heading to the flashpoint town, forcing some of them to turn back, according to witnesses there.
In Siliana, protesters gathered early on Thursday at the headquarters of the UGTT trade union, which had called a general strike, before taking to the streets to demand the resignation of the governor, Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi, over his perceived failure to boost the poor region's economic prospects.
Shops were closed, and the UGTT, Tunisia’s main trade union, said the strike was being observed across the region, which lies more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Tunis.
It called for a fresh demonstration on Friday following Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s refusal to sack the governor, in a televised announcement on Wednesday evening.
“I call on all residents of the region to participate in a symbolic march on Tunis,” said the UGTT's local secretary general, Nejib Sebti.
An Ennahda official denounced the violence, which he said was provoked by the protesters, and warned of interference by “counter-revolutionaries.”
“The protests have degenerated into violence and attacks against symbols of the state... and the achievements of the people,” Ameur Larayedh, who heads the party’'s politbureau, told a news conference in Tunis.
“The people will not allow the counter-revolutionaries to return” to power, he added.
Clashes in Siliana between police and protesters earlier this week wounded at least 265 people, medics at the hospital said.
The Islamist-led government has insisted the response to the protests was appropriate.
But protesters are demanding action against police officers, after some of the demonstrators were treated for shotgun wounds on Wednesday.
Nineteen people were partially or totally blinded in the unrest on Wednesday, when protesters again demanded jobs, and investment in the region to boost economic growth.
Precarious living conditions and widespread unemployment were driving factors behind Ben Ali's overthrow in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings that have since swept the region.
Much of Tunisia’s interior suffers from a chronic lack of development, and has seen growing social unrest in the face of economic stagnation and rising discontent over the government's failure to improve living standards.