Tunisia imposes curfew in Tunis to quell protests

Protesters in the Ettadhamen suburb of Tunis, Tunisia (12 Jan 2011) Hundreds of people have been involved in clashes in the Ettadhamen suburb of Tunis

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The Tunisian government has imposed a night-time curfew in the capital, Tunis, and surrounding regions.

It comes after violent protests in several districts of the capital, with riot police firing tear gas at demonstrators.

Officials say at least 23 people have died across the country since the unrest began late last year.

The protesters say they are angry about rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment and corruption.

Human rights and trade union activists believe the number of dead to be at least 50.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dismissed his interior minister in an attempt to stem the unrest.

Rafik Belhaj Kacem had been responsible for the police force, which many people say has used excessive force against protesters.

But the BBC's Adam Mynott in Tunis says the president's efforts appear not to have worked.

At least two people were reported to have been shot dead by police in the southern city of Douz on Wednesday. One man was also reported to have been killed during clashes in Thala.

Tear gas

The interior ministry said the nightly Tunis curfew would begin on Wednesday at 2000 local time (1900 GMT) and end each day at 0600.

It said the action was being taken because of "disturbances, pillaging and attacks against people and property which have occurred in some districts of the city".

Our correspondent says the city's streets, which are normally thronging with tourists and locals until late into the evening, were ominously quiet on Wednesday night.

Charred bus in Tunis suburb of Ettadamen (12 January 2011)

Violence broke out on Wednesday afternoon, as protesters threw stones and police responded with volleys of tear gas.

It is the first time in the weeks of unrest that the violence has reached the capital.

The government says 21 people died over the weekend during violence in and around the central town of Kasserine.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Communications Minister Samir Laabidi denied that police had killed any of the protesters.

He said the deaths had occurred "during attacks and acts of vandalism against public buildings, police stations or schools".

Mr Laabidi accused "religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left" of fomenting the unrest.

On Wednesday morning, the leader of the banned Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (POCT) - a prominent critic of the president - was arrested, his family and rights groups said.

Hamma Hammami had in recent days said the unrest could bring about the government's collapse, calling for Mr Ben Ali to stand down.

'Excessive force'
Map of Tunisia

In addition to sacking Mr Belhaj Kacem, the president has ordered the release of some of those already arrested at protests.

He has also created a committee to investigate corruption and "assess the mistakes of certain officials", Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi told reporters.

But while those moves will be welcome, says our correspondent, many in the country say the fundamental cause of resentment remains: high levels of unemployment, soaring food and fuel inflation and corruption in Tunisia's ruling class.

The United Nations, the US and the European Union have all expressed concern over the government's response to the unrest.

The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said the protests had been peaceful and that the security forces "reacted with excessive force in breach of international standards".

She urged the government to launch a "transparent, credible and independent investigation into the violence and killings" and punish those found responsible.

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