Tunisia arrests opposition leaders during unrest

Tunisia arrests opposition leaders during unrest

Tunisian authorities said on Friday the number of people detained in the wave of violent protests had risen to almost 800, after a provincial town was hit by a night of unrest over the austerity measures.

Last year, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund agreed a four-year loan programme worth about $2.8bn with Tunisia, but tied to economic reforms.

"The protests have declined and there was no damage, but last night the police arrested 150 people involved in rioting in the past few days, bringing the total number of detainees to 778", said Interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani.

"The people want the Finance Act repealed" and "The people are fed up with the new Trabelsi", they shouted, referring to the corruption-tainted in-laws of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In December, unemployed protesters and activists marched through the streets of Sidi Bouzid, angry over the lack of jobs and opportunities that continue to plague residents.

Sixteen "Islamist extremists" were among those arrested, he said.

More than 770 people have been detained in almost a week of sometimes violent demonstrations.

A Tunisian government employee removes a portrait of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
A Tunisian government employee removes a portrait of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

In a statement to the press on Friday, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government to stop using "excessive force".

The opposition bloc, mainly the Popular Front, denied such accusations, pointing out that the current government is "reproducing the old regime's methods". Party members had also been arrested in Mahdia and Karbariya, it said.

The protests draw on anger over price and tax increases included in this year's budget that took effect on 1 January. But the economy has struggled and people are angry over the government's latest austerity measures.

Tunisia appears to have little scope to back away austerity.

Djerba is home to Tunisia's main Jewish community.

Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in the North African country in 2011 and spread across the region, toppling autocrats.

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