The wave of violence was unleashed by the suicide of an unemployed graduate on December 17 [AFP]

The Tunisian president has sacked his interior minister after a deadly wave of violent unrest engulfed the capital, Tunis, for the first time.

Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who was responsible for the police force which has been widely criticised for its ruthless response to the protests, was dismissed on Wednesday.

But the dismissal did little to douse public anger immediately and hundreds of protesters emerged from a souk, or market, in the capital and hurled stones at police at a key intersection on Wednesday. Officers responded with volleys of tear gas, driving the protesters to disperse into adjoining streets. Stores in the area were shuttered.

It was not immediately clear whether there were any injuries or arrests. Two army vehicles were posted at the intersection, which is right by the French Embassy.

In another neighbourhood in central Tunis, hundreds of protesters tried to reach the regional governor's office but were blocked by riot police. And at the main national union headquarters, police surrounded protesters who tried to break out. Tensions also erupted along the edges of the capital.

Armoured vehicles rumbled through Tunis and troops took up positions at major intersections and the
entrance to the Cite Ettadhamen quarter where rioters burnt vehicles and attacked government offices late on Tuesday.

It was the first rioting in the capital since protests over unemployment erupted in mid-December, turning violent in the west of the country at the weekend when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

The government said 21 people were killed in three days of unrest in the western Kasserine region, and that security forces acted in self-defence, but labour unions and rights groups said more than 50 were killed.

Meanwhile sources told Al Jazeera that five people had been killed in fresh clashes between protesters and security forces in the south.

Protesters 'released'

Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, told a press conference on Wednesday that all those arrested in the wave of demonstrations had been released, but gave no figure for how many had been originally detained.

Read more about Tunisia's unrest on the spotlight page

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the president, had only a few days earlier accused the rioters of committing acts of terrorism.

People taking part in the unrest say they are angry about unemployment, corruption and what they say is a repressive government.

Ghannouchi also said that allegations by opposition and non-government groups into corruption would be investigated by a special commission.

Government officials say the protests have been hijacked by a minority of violent extremists who want to undermine Tunisia.

Radwan Masmoudi, an expert on Tunisia, told Al Jazeera that the president's change in direction is a beginning, but people's demands are for greater reform and genuine democracy.

"I think it has finally dawned on the president that these demands are not going to go away," Masmoudi said.

"He realises he has to make some serious changes and not just of people but in policies.

"People see corruption as the main problem in Tunisia so there is a tie beteeen economic development and political institutions to guard against corruption."

Also on Wednesday the European Union condemned the "disproportionate" use of force by police against demonstrators during the deadly protests.

Catherine Ashton, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief, said the violence in Tunisia was "unacceptable" and that those responsible "must be identified and brought to justice".

The rare unrest in tightly controlled Tunisia was unleashed by the suicide of a 26-year-old man who set himself on fire on December 17 after police prevented him from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies