TUNIS (Reuters) - Police fired into the air to disperse a crowd ransacking buildings in a Tunis suburb on Tuesday, the first time a wave of violent unrest that officials say has killed 23 civilians has hit the capital.
People taking part in the weeks of clashes rocking Tunisia say they want jobs and better living conditions, but the authorities say the protests have been hijacked by a minority of violent extremists armed with petrol bombs and clubs.
In the strongest U.S. statement on the violence to date, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was “deeply concerned by reports of the use of excessive force by the government of Tunisia.”
A Reuters reporter in the working-class Ettadamen neighborhood of Tunis said he saw hundreds of youths, who had earlier blocked roads with burning tires and hurled stones at police, try to attack a local government building.
Police fired warning shots into the air and also fired teargas grenades to try to force people back from the building, the reporter said.
“We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God,” the crowds chanted.
The main body of the crowd later dispersed and police were pursuing small groups of people through side streets near the scene of the earlier stand-off.
A witness reported that large numbers of police reinforcements had been brought in and were being kept on standby a few blocks away. There was no sign of any disturbances in other parts of the city.
The unrest is the worst in decades. Officials said the civilian deaths — almost all of them in clashes in provincial towns at the weekend — came about when police fired on rioters in legitimate self-defense.
Reports of the clashes in Tunis emerged minutes after the government raised the death toll from the unrest by three, but dismissed human rights groups’ estimates of a higher number.
Until Tuesday evening there had been no reports of major new clashes after the army was deployed in the most restive towns, schools and universities were shut indefinitely and police with loudhailers ordered people in at least one town not to gather in the streets.
Tunisia — a country of 10 million people which depends on trade and tourism for its economic survival — has been bracing for international reaction to its handling of the protests.
But former colonial ruler France, which still carries influence in the north African country, responded to the unrest without apportioning blame for the deaths.
Tunisian Communications Minister Samir Labidi told a news conference that the death toll from clashes in the past few days was 21 — three more than previously announced.
An additional two people were killed in clashes earlier in the unrest, which has now been under way for almost a month. A further two committed suicide in acts of protest.
“All other figures given by television and agencies which talk about 40 or 50 (dead) are totally false,” Labidi said.
“Religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left have infiltrated these protests and pushed for violence,” he said.
Addressing the grievances of some of those involved in the clashes, he said: “Our response to the demands of the young people is economic and social reforms and more opening up toward liberty.”
Souhayr Belhassan, who chairs the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, had earlier told Reuters the figure established by her organization was 35 people killed. “The toll ... could get worse,” she said.
The main focus of the protests has been bread-and-butter issues but some of those taking part have criticized President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
In one of the most vivid examples, a song by a 22-year-old rapper entitled “Mr President, your people are dying,” was widely circulated online. The rapper, Hamada Ben-Amor, was detained and released three days later, his brother said.
Ben Ali, facing the worst unrest of his 23-year rule, said on Monday the rioting was a “terrorist act,” orchestrated by foreign forces trying to damage Tunisia. He also promised to create 300,000 jobs before the end of 2012.
Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey in Paris and Washington bureau; editing by Alison Williams