As Violent Protests Spread Tunisian President Dissolves Government

The autocratic president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has unexpectedly fired his government amid rising popular unrest. There are reports of gunfire and teargas in the capital, and British tour operator Thomas Cook has announced the evacuation of thousands of tourists.

AFP

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dismissed his government Friday and called for new elections in the face of popular riots, after 23 years of autocratic rule.

Ben Ali had tried to quell nearly a month of violence by making unexpected concessions in a televised speech on Thursday evening. But the opposition wasn't pacified. Some 5,000 protesters took to the streets of Tunis on Friday morning, chanting "Ben Ali, out!" according to the British news agency Press Association. As the demonstrations grew, police were seen kicking and clubbing unarmed protesters.

There was also violence outside the capital, and medical workers reported 12 new deaths overnight between Thursday and Friday in the town of Ras Jebel, according to Reuters.

Amid gunfire and teargas fired into the Tunis crowds on Friday, Tunisia's official news agency TAP issued a terse statement that Ben Ali had dismissed his ministers. There was no reference to the president's own resignation, and elections will take place within the next six months, according to TAP.

Nearly a Month of Violence

Before the reports of new deaths on Friday morning, street violence around Tunisia since mid-December had claimed 23 lives, according to an official count -- though opposition leaders claim the toll is two or three times as high. Protesters have been demonstrating rising food prices, a lack of basic freedoms and a lack of jobs.

In his surprise speech Thursday evening, Ben Ali promised to slash the prices of sugar, milk and bread and vowed not to run for president after the end of his current term in 2014. There would be "no presidencies for life," he declared, adding: "I have understood the demands about unemployment, the demands about necessities, and the political demands for more freedoms." On Wednesday he also fired his interior minister in response to the violence.

The street protests began in December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables of an educated but jobless 26-year-old who had been selling produce without a permit. The man set himself on fire, and the act sparked copycat suicides as well as unprecedented popular revolt. The demonstrations took hold in the provinces, but made their way to the capital this week.

The tour operator Thomas Cook on Friday said it was evacuating some 1,800 tourists from the UK, Ireland and Germany because of the instability.

msm, with wire reports

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