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Tunisia police, protesters clash in deprived region


Clashes erupted in central Tunisia Wednesday between police and demonstrators as discontent mounts over new taxes and a failure to improve living conditions three years after the revolution.

Dozens of protesters tried to force their way into the offices of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda in the town of Kasserine, but police drove them back with tear gas, an AFP journalist reported.

In the town of Thala, in the Kasserine region and where clashes took place late Tuesday, protesters attacked a police post, partly burning it and driving out members of the security forces, witnesses said.

And in Kasserine's Ennour neighbourhood, another police post was torched.

The region is one of the poorest in Tunisia and was a hotbed of unrest during the January 2011 revolt that toppled veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The interior ministry denounced attacks on police targets, saying they could only harm the relationship between citizens and the security forces who were "focused on protecting our borders and towns from terrorism and crime".

It also urged civil groups to condemn the acts of violence.

Shops and public offices remained closed in Kasserine on Wednesday, as hundreds protested in the streets. They shouted slogans including "The people want the fall of the regime", the rallying cry of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia's powerful UGTT trade union confederation called the strike to coincide with the anniversary of the first death in the town during the revolution.

Central Tunisia has long suffered from neglect and a lack of opportunity, driving factors behind the popular uprising that began in nearby Sidi Bouzid, when a young street vendor set himself on fire in protest at his impoverished circumstances.

"On this day, which marks the death of the first martyr of the revolution in Kasserine, we wanted to protest against underdevelopment and the poor economic situation," trade unionist Sadok Mahmoudi told AFP.

"The political class must know that we remain committed to the goals of the revolution -- dignity, freedom and work."

Strikes and demonstrations have been on the rise in Tunisia since the autumn, fuelled by the persistent economic malaise and a political crisis triggered by the murder of an opposition politician in July.

More recent protests have taken place nationwide to denounce a new tax imposed on certain vehicles that came into force this year, with demonstrators blocking many roads.

On Wednesday, Ennahda expressed "understanding" over the protest movements, and called for the cash-strapped government to reconsider the new taxes.

The latest social unrest comes with Ennahda and the opposition locked in tense parliamentary sessions to ratify the long-delayed new constitution.

They have committed to doing so before a deadline of January 14, the third anniversary of the triumph of the uprising which touched off the Arab Spring.