- Associated Press - Thursday, January 13, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A protester was fatally shot and a journalist was hit in the leg by police gunfire Thursday as rioting youths clashed with authorities in Tunisia’s capital, witnesses said.

The second day of violence in the heart of Tunis sharply escalated a conflict between protesters angry over unemployment and repression and an authoritarian government that appears more and more willing to use force to put down its greatest challenge in at least a generation.

At least 23 people, possibly dozens more, now have been killed.

On Thursday, rioters hurled stones at trams and government buildings in Tunis. The smell of tear gas filled the air, and so many stones littered the streets that it was difficult to walk through the city, normally quiet and tightly controlled.

In one clash near the state radio headquarters in the city’s center, police fired on protesters with bullets, two witnesses said. One protester was hit by a sniper on the balcony of a building overlooking the violence, said witness Hassene Ayadi, who lives in the surrounding La Fayette neighborhood.

In the melee, an American journalist was wounded in the leg, according to another witness who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his security. The witness said police did not appear to be targeting the journalist, who was taken to the Charles Nicolles Hospital.

The journalist’s identity and employer were not immediately clear. The U.S. Embassy would not comment, citing privacy considerations.

The unprecedented violence has revealed deep anger against autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has clamped down on civil liberties, jailed opponents and tightly controlled the media during 23 years of rule in the Mediterranean tourist haven.

Online media and social networks have helped spread the outrage since a desperate young graduate tried to set himself on fire in a provincial town last month. That incident touched off protests around the country that turned into increasingly violent clashes with police before reaching the capital this week.

Social networks also helped spread U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks describing corruption in Tunisia. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the cables.

Mr. Ben Ali announced plans to give later on Thursday his third television address since the start of tensions.

Unions, meanwhile, announced a general strike for Friday in Tunis and some other regions.

Overnight, police fire killed four people who defied a government curfew in several towns, opposition members said, driving up a death toll already in the dozens.

Looters in the Bizerte region raided a supermarket, pharmacy, clothing shops and a bookstore amid chaos, said union leader and human rights advocate Souad Ghousami, a member of the opposition PDP party.

Security forces appeared unable or unwilling to intervene, and the military appeared to focus its efforts on protecting public buildings, she said. Many youths were taken into custody.

The government’s death toll stands at 23, while opposition figures and witnesses say it is much higher.

The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, known by its French acronym FIDH, said Thursday it has tallied 66 dead in the unrest, including seven people who killed themselves.

French and Swiss citizens visiting their native country were among those killed, the two European governments said.

In the capital, which until this week had been spared the violence erupting in provincial towns, rioters threw stones at Metro trains, forcing them to return to their depot. The Interior Ministry building and a municipal services building were among targets of protesters’ anger.

Near the French Embassy, hundreds of protesters, some throwing rocks, clashed with undercover officers and riot police, who fired tear gas in an effort to disperse them, a witness said.

Police were deployed on major thoroughfares in the capital, and stores across town were shuttered — as was the central souk, or market.

European governments warned citizens about travel in Tunisia, where the tourism industry makes up the bulk of the economy.

The European Union has complained about the disproportionate use of force in a country that is considered an oasis of calm compared with its neighbors, Algeria and Libya.

Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Tunis contributed to this report.

 

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