Tunisian minister fired after unrest

2010-12-29 20:37

Tunis - Tunisia's president fired the country's communications minister Wednesday after protests over unemployment that spread to several towns and led to at least two deaths.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali replaced Oussama Romdhani in a government reshuffle, but retained the interior minister despite opposition calls to oust him, according to a government statement.

The president, who runs this tiny Muslim country in North Africa with an iron fist, said the night before that the recent protest violence was manipulated by foreign media and hurt the country's image.

Tunisia is a popular destination for European tourists and one that rarely sees unrest or public dissent. Ben Ali's government was clearly caught off guard by days of spreading discontent.

The protests began in the central town of Sidi Bouzid after a young man tried to set himself on fire earlier this month, in despair after police seized fruits and vegetables he had been selling illegally.

The incident touched off demonstrations over unemployment in neighbouring towns, and later in other regions.

Police opened fire at one protest, killing an 18-year-old. In another protest, an unemployed youth electrocuted himself on an electricity pylon, according to union officials. Demonstrators set police cars ablaze and threw firebombs at official buildings.

The leading opposition Progressive Democratic Party, or PDP, said Wednesday that security forces have taken up positions in several towns and claimed that opposition figures have been arrested.

The PDP also said the interior minister should be ousted as well as the communications minister. PDP founder Nejib Chebbi told a news conference that the two ministers "symbolise the policy of hardening, violence and media clampdown" and said they failed to handle a legimitate protest movement and allowed it to degenerate into violence.

Those arrested include a PDP member who was a spokesperson for the Sidi Bouzid protesters and a leader of an unauthorised leftist party, as well as a journalist, according to the PDP leadership.

The reshuffle came after Ben Ali went on television Tuesday night to warn that rioters will be firmly punished and calm must be restored.

The president, acknowledging difficulties for the unemployed, ordered the prime minister to mobilise authorities nationwide for a 6.5 billion dinar ($4.5bn) plan to create jobs for Tunisians with university diplomas.

It is a significant sum in this small Mediterranean country of 10 million people, which Ben Ali has run since 1987.

The communications minister was replaced by Samir Laabidi, outgoing minister for youth and sports. The ministers for trade and religious affairs minister were also replaced.