- Associated Press - Thursday, May 31, 2012

TUNIS, TUNISIA — Security forces will not hesitate to use lethal force to restore order, Tunisia’s interior minister said Thursday after a string of violent incidents in recent weeks.

His statements came after an announcement by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali that Tunisians lost patience with violent acts by hard-line Islamists, such as those who attacked bars and police stations last week in a northern town.

Interior Minister Ali Larrayedh condemned violence by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis who “ignore laws and institutions and want to impose their ideas and model of society on others,” he said at a news conference.

He said the law permits police to use live ammunition and to invoke emergency law. “Even if these measures might partially restrict freedoms, they can be applied to restore security,” he said.

The statements by the officials were the sternest warnings yet against Salafis who have attacked police stations and other sites while demanding rigid Islamic law in a nation still emerging from years of secular dictatorship.

The new government, led by a moderate Islamist party, has been criticized as too timid in dealing with the hard-liners.

“The patience of Tunisians is at an end. We will not sit by with our arms crossed. We will be on the ground applying the law,” Mr. Jebali said in a television interview late Wednesday.

Tunisians overthrew their longtime secular dictator last year, a revolution that engendered a flowering of political Islam and the victory of Mr. Jebali’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party at the ballot box.

But the new freedom also has given space to factions such as the ultraconservative Salafis, who have been more than vocal about their demands.

On Saturday, after police arrested a Salafi suspect in the northern town of Jendouba, a group of 200 bearded men attacked the police station with firebombs and stones. They were repelled with tear gas, but went on a rampage through downtown, attacking bars and liquor stores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested.

Earlier last month, another group of conservatives attacked bars in the central town of Sidi Bouzid.

There also have been many other clashes between Salafis and ordinary citizens since the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Leftist and liberal opposition parties say the government’s cautious approach toward the Salafis has emboldened them in their quest to turn Tunisia into an Islamic state.

“The deterioration of the political, social and security situation in Tunisia today is due to the inability of the team in power to find solutions to the urgent problems in the country,” said Maya Jribi, the head of the Republican party, a newly formed alliance of opposition parties.

She called for a national unity government to address the country’s problems.

On Sunday, Tunisia’s police union demanded expanded powers to deal with the Salafis, including “all means necessary” to put down the disorder.

Mr. Jebali didn’t give specifics about what steps the government would take to deal with the hard-liners, but said: “It is imperative that these incidents be ended and a firm approach be taken to those who believe they are charged by God to purify society.”