Hundreds of Salafists have attacked bars and shops and clashed with security forces in a Tunisian town in the latest incident to raise religious tensions in the home of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Police and witnesses in the northwestern town of Jendouba said on Saturday that hundreds of the ultra-conservative Muslims began rioting to protest the arrest of four men in connection with previous attacks on alcohol vendors.
Police responded with tear gas, breaking up the crowd, but clashes had yet to die down, witnesses and police said.
"This morning, four men were arrested in connection with attacks on alcohol vendors in recent days," Lutfi al-Haydari, a Tunisian interior ministry official, told the Reuters news agency.
"Hundreds of Salafis attacked the security base, pelting it with rocks and petrol bombs before they were dispersed by tear gas. They also set fire to a police station and attacked three shops in the town ... they are now in the centre of town and are being dealt with."
He said police had fanned out across Jendouba to protect shops and public buildings from attack.
One witness in the town said the rioters numbered about 500 and were armed with petrol bombs, terrifying residents.
"Masked Salafis armed with swords, petrol bombs and rocks attacked shops in the town and destroyed the goods inside and then set fire to the police station," said the witness, who declined to give her name, fearing a backlash from the Salafists.
"The whole town is in a state of alarm and fear because of these clashes."
Pattern of incidents
The incident comes a week after Salafists fought with alcohol vendors in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, prompting the justice minister to promise they would be punished.
Many Salafists were in jail or underground before the 2011 uprising that toppled former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali but have since become more assertive.
The struggle over the role of religion in government and society has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia, which for decades was considered one of the most secular countries in the Arab world.
Ennahdha, a moderate Islamic group, won Tunisia's first elections since the revolt but formed a coalition with two non-religious parties and has promised not to ban alcohol, impose the veil or use sharia as the basis of Tunisian law.
But the more hardline Salafists want a broader role for Islam, however, alarming secular elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and undermine Tunisia's nascent democracy.
Since the revolution, violent incidents involving Salafists have increased. Salafists have attacked a television station and a cinema that aired films they deemed blasphemous.