Tunisia secures more loans as protests hit deprived town
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia, struggling to ease economic difficulties that have provoked unrest since its democratic revolution, said on Wednesday it had secured more international lending to cover its 2013 spending.
Tunisia's new, elected Islamist-led government has sought to revive the economy in the face of a decline in trade with the crisis-hit euro zone and disputes between secularists and hardline Salafi Islamists over the future direction of the North African Arab state.
At least 200 people were injured when Tunisians demanding jobs clashed with police on Tuesday and Wednesday in the city of Siliana in a region on the edge of the Sahara desert that has long complained of economic deprivation.
The state news agency TAP said Tunis had clinched a $500 million loan from the African Development Bank, after the World Bank approved a $500 million loan on Tuesday, and a government minister told Reuters finances were now in order for 2013.
"Next year our public expenditure is essentially covered, thanks also to lines of credit for a total of $1 billion from the World Bank and the African Development Bank," Investment Minister Riad Bettaieb said on the sidelines of a meeting with a European Union business delegation.
"So we are not planning to ask for further international support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)," he said.
But he said Tunisia could ask the IMF for a standby credit line worth $2.5 billion for 2014 and beyond. "We are considering asking the IMF for a precautionary line of credit to give a guarantee for our financing needs ... around $2.5 billion."
The loans, the World Bank's second since the "Arab Spring" uprising that toppled autocrat Zain al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, aim to support economic recovery by improving the business and financial sectors and reforming social services.
BLINDED BY BIRDSHOT
In Siliana on Wednesday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds who rallied for a second day.
A medic from Siliana Hospital who did not wish to named said more than 200 people had been injured in the clashes. A journalist from France 24 television told Reuters he and a colleague had been hospitalized for wounds from birdshot apparently fired by riot police.
State media said 17 people had been blinded by birdshot wounds to the eyes. Residents blocked the entrances to the city, setting tyres alight on roads.
Many protesters called for the resignation of local officials, saying the authorities had failed to release development funds for their region.
Iyed Dahmani, a politician from the Republican Party in the town, said the national guard - an interior ministry-run security force - had deployed tanks to help restore order.
Interior Minister Ali Larayed appeared on state television to call for calm. "I ask people in Siliana to calm down, to protest calmly and accept dialogue," he said, accusing leftist politicians of inflaming the situation.
But state TV also showed Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali saying he would not remove the unpopular governor of the region: "I won't accept sacking him; he will stay in place."
Jebali has accused both Salafis and liberal elites of harming Tunisia's economy and image through their conflict with each other. His Ennahda party has tried to present itself as a middle way between liberals and Salafis.
The protests are the fiercest since hardline Salafi Islamists attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September over an anti-Islam film made in California. That violence left four people dead.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond)
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