Protesters clash with police in Tunisian mining town over jobs

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse angry protesters who burned a police station in a mining town in the south of the country to demand jobs and development, witnesses told Reuters.

Phosphate production, which is a big contributer to the Tunisian economy, resumed earlier this month after protests halted operations and exports at mines in Mdhila, Redayef, Om laaryess and Metlaoui in the south of the country for nearly two months.

Tensions have flared up again just two weeks after a deal between the government and protesters, who agreed to temporarily end their sit-in over job demands.

In Mdhila town, police clashed with protesters on Wednesday and fired gas to disperse youths who shouted slogans, “Work is a right, not a gift.”

Protesters also burned a police station in the town.

‘’Protesters tried to close the roads and stop the transfer of phosphate workers, they burned the police station ... There is a great anger among the people here due to the spread of unemployment in the region,’’ Houssem, one of the residents told Reuters.

The phosphate mining region is one of the poorer parts of the country with high unemployment among young people.

Last week, the finance minister Ridha Chalgoum said the government would recruit about 1,000 employees into the state-owned phosphate company in Gafsa (CPG), but the protesters rejected this and said it was not enough.

Once one of the world’s largest producers of phosphates, Tunisia’s market share has fallen after a 2011 uprising against then president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Since then protests and strikes have steadily cut into production and caused billions of dollars in losses. The CPG is the biggest employer in Gafsa, one of Tunisia’s poorest areas.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring because it toppled a long-serving leader without triggering widespread violence or civil war.

But Tunisia has had nine governments since Ben Ali’s overthrow, none of which have been able to resolve deep-rooted economic problems.

Reporting By Tarek Amara. Editing by Jane Merriman