- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Police and protesters clashed in the center of the Tunisian capital Wednesday, bringing unrest to the government’s doorstep after nearly a month of deadly protests that pose the most serious challenge ever to the president’s two decades of iron-fisted rule.

The government imposed a curfew overnight, a highly unusual move in this generally stable North African country where pledges by the president to subdue rioters and create jobs have done little to dissipate public fury over unemployment and corruption.

European governments warned travelers about going to Tunisia, whose safe image and Mediterranean beaches draw millions of mainly European travelers and make tourism the mainstay of the small nation’s economy.

After more than three weeks of protests outside Tunis, hundreds of protesters emerged from a souk, or market, in the capital and hurled stones at police at a key intersection. Officers responded with volleys of tear gas, driving the protesters to disperse into adjoining streets. Stores in the area were shuttered.

It was not immediately clear whether there were any injuries or arrests. Two army vehicles were posted at the intersection, which is right by the French Embassy.

In another neighborhood in central Tunis, hundreds of protesters tried to reach the regional governor’s office but were blocked by riot police. And at the main national union headquarters, police surrounded protesters who tried to break out. Tensions also erupted along the edges of the capital.

The clashes broke out soon after the interior minister was fired, a move that intensified a sense of uncertainty and questions about what’s next for autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — questions that have never been openly posed during his time in power.

The protests erupted in mid-December in an inland town after a young man tried to kill himself. They then hopscotched around the country, as social networks like Facebook spread word of the unrest, circumventing tight control of the media.

Police have repeatedly shot at demonstrators setting fire to buildings and stoning police. The government says 23 people have died but unions and witnesses put the toll at 46 or higher.

The upheaval has ravaged the nation’s reputation as a stable Muslim nation and highlighted its inability to provide opportunities for its young.

The United States, which calls Tunisia a strong ally in the fight against international Islamist terror groups, has expressed concern.

“We are worried, in general, about the unrest and the instability, and what seems to be the underlying concerns of the people who are protesting,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview in Dubai with Al Arabiya television, according to a transcript provided by the State Department.

There has been no indication that militant Islamists, whom Mr. Ben Ali has consistently claimed threaten the nation, have had a role in the riots. But Denmark’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that there’s a risk of terror attacks against Western targets in Tunisia and said travelers should also avoid areas with demonstrations.

Germany’s government issued a statement warning about the “danger of kidnapping and attacks” in Tunisia.

Spain issued a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid the internal part of Tunisia and to be careful in tourist areas along the coast.

Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced the firing of Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, and said that most prisoners arrested during the riots are being freed. He said Ahmed Friaa would replace Mr. Kacem.

Mr. Ghannouchi also announced the creation of two inquiry commissions to probe “excesses committed during the troubles” and “the question of corruption and faults committed by certain officials,” the statement said.

The president made no public appearance Wednesday.

In a statement carried by the state news agency TAP, Mr. Ghannouchi did not give figures on how many people would be freed, but said the government would not be releasing protesters whose guilt has been proven.

Mr. Kacem kept his job in a government reshuffle last month, but pressure on Tunisia’s leadership has mounted as the protests took an especially violent turn. “It seems to be a combination of economic and political demonstrations, and the government’s reaction, which has been unfortunately leading to the deaths of some of the protestors. So we are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The prime minister’s reference to excesses may have referred to the handling of rioters in certain towns. The majority of the dead were counted in three days of unrest, from Saturday to Monday, in the central town of Kasserine.

The statement also said the two houses of parliament would be called to an extraordinary session Thursday for an “open debate” on measures announced Monday by Mr. Ben Ali that include a promise to create 300,000 jobs over two years, particularly meant to benefit university graduates.

The 74-year-old Mr. Ben Ali, a former interior minister himself, grabbed power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup and human rights groups in Tunisia and abroad have long criticized the lack of freedoms.

According to Mr. Ghannouchi, the president has stressed his wish to place at the forefront “dialogue and peaceful freedom of expression and association and for all parties to be involved in treating the questions of the nation.”

Tunisia was the seat of the Carthaginian empire, and in modern times was a French protectorate until independence in 1956. Today it has about 10.4 million people and has seen steady economic growth, but many ordinary young Tunisians can’t find jobs and feel they have few prospects for the future.

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