Tunisian troops fire tear gas at protesters

SILIANA, Tunisia Sat Dec 1, 2012 12:17pm EST

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SILIANA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Tunisian security forces fired tear gas and live rounds into the air on Saturday to try to disperse several thousand protesters in a town that has seen clashes throughout the week over economic problems in the North African state.

National guard forces belonging to the Interior Ministry fired tear gas and rounds from inside armored personnel carriers in the town of Siliana, northwest of Tunis on the edge of the Sahara desert.

"Get out, get out!", "With our blood and soul we sacrifice ourselves for you, Siliana" and "Siliana will be the graveyard of the Ennahda party" the protesters, who numbered about 3,000, chanted while throwing stones at security forces.

Police chased protesters down streets in an apparent effort to arrest them.

The Islamist Ennahda party that won Tunisia's first post-Arab Spring election last year is struggling to revive the economy due to lower trade with the crisis-hit euro zone.

Disputes also continue between secularists and hardline Salafi Islamists over the future direction of the country.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki asked the Islamist Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in an address on state television on Friday to appoint a new cabinet in response to the protests.

On Saturday, Jebali seemed poised to remove the controversial Siliana governor to ease tensions. A statement on state news agency TAP said a deputy had been put in charge of the governorate's affairs pending a "final decision".

The protests are the fiercest since Salafis attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September over an anti-Islam film made in California. Four people were killed in that violence.

CONTROVERSIAL TACTICS

Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Friday authorities must stop using firearms against demonstrators, in some of her harshest criticisms of the government elected after veteran ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled in January last year during mass protests.

The tactics used to put down the protests have stirred anger among secular politicians in Tunisia, who say the new government is advocating the kind of harsh policing employed by Ben Ali.

At least 252 people have been wounded by the use of birdshot, according to state news agency TAP. Medical sources say 17 people have been blinded. A Reuters witness did not see police using birdshot on Saturday.

"Authorities must respect the right to peaceful assembly and ensure that the police adhere to international standards on use of force and firearms," Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday.

The government has formed an independent commission to investigate the latest unrest, TAP said. It also reported clashes in the town of Barqo near Siliana on Saturday, saying youths attacked three police vehicles.

It was in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, that a street seller set himself alight in 2010 in despair at the confiscation of his fruit cart, blowing the lid off simmering anger about poverty, joblessness, corruption and repression, triggering the Arab Spring uprisings.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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