Clashes broke out again on Saturday between residents and police in Ben Guerdane near Tunisia’s border with Libya after nearly a week of demonstrations over poor living conditions.
Ben Guerdane, around 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the border, has witnessed sporadic unrest since Sunday, fuelled by Tripoli’s decision to close the Ras Jdir border crossing in early September for security reasons.
Dozens of youths, many of them masked, gathered outside the police station, which was torched on Thursday, and threw stones at police who responded with tear gas, an AFP journalist reported.
By late afternoon the policemen evacuated the station to seek shelter in the headquarters of the national guard, and a tense calm spread over the region.
In the evening, fresh clashes erupted and protesters torched the police station again, with demonstrators saying the violence was fuelled by comments made by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.
“The state understands (protesters’) demands and respects freedom of expression, but it does not tolerate vandals, drug traffickers and aggressors,” the official TAP news agency quoted Jebali as saying about the unrest.
Earlier in the day protesters hurled abuse at the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, whose local headquarters were also ransacked this week. A customs office was also torched.
“Ben Guerdane is Free! Jebali out!” the protesters chanted, two days ahead of the second anniversary of the revolution that sparked off the Arab Spring.
The latest demonstration came as representatives of the authorities, trade unions and local tribes met in Ben Guerdane in an attempt to thrash out a solution to the crisis.
But Amar Hamdi, who heads the local branch of Tunisia’s main trade union confederation, the UGTT, said the talks had foundered, and blamed the government.
“The authorities say this is a security problem, but we want development projects” for the region, Hamdi said, denouncing the fact that “no member of the government has come to Ben Guerdane to try to resolve the problem.”
Despite the border crossing being reopened on Thursday, the local UGTT branch went ahead with a general strike in the town to demand investment and jobs, with only chemists, hospitals and bakeries remaining open.
“We don’t want Ras Jdir reopened — we want development,” one protester in Ben Guerdane told AFP on Saturday.
There is ongoing social discontent in Tunisia two years after the uprising that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with strikes and protests often degenerating into violence.
Unemployment and tough living conditions were key factors behind the revolt that touched off the Arab Spring, whose second anniversary will be celebrated on Monday.
Violent attacks by Islamists and political deadlock over a new constitution also continue to threaten the country’s stability.