Troops move to curb Tunisia unrest

Armed forces were stationed on the capital's streets for the first time since violent protests began a month ago.

    The military takes to the streets in Tunis on Wednesday morning, after police clashed with protesters

    Units from the Tunisian military were deployed for the first time in the capital Tunis since deadly demonstrations over food prices and unemployment spread to the suburbs the night before.

    Armoured vehicles rumbled through the streets and troops alighted from trucks to take up positions at major intersections early on Wednesday morning.

    It is the first time that troops have been deployed in the capital since unrest broke out in the south of the country in mid-December.

    The violence in the capital began when actors, lawyers and journalists who gathered in protest outside the municipal theatre on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the capital's main street, were beaten by police on Tuesday morning.

    Neji Bghouri, former president of the National Union of Journalists, said the protests are against excessive use of force and the authorities' attempts to stop media coverage of what some are calling an uprising.

    "We wanted to demonstrate to say stop killing people, to condemn obstacles preventing journalists from reporting freely on the unrest in the country," he said.

    The centre of Tunis, the capital, was closed, and police demanded shops and cafés to close by midday on Tuesday, a source told Al Jazeera.

    Protesters in the suburbs of Ettadhamen and Al Intikala, working class suburbs in western Tunis, clashed with police later in the day.

    The protesters were chanting "the ministry of interior, a terrorist ministry" according to Youssef Gaigi, a web activist in Tunis.

    Police had fired into the air and used tear gas to disperse the crowd. The interior ministry said its forces have been acting in self-defence.

    "People feel the government is scaring us to justify its own existence and its power. Yet, we know that the protesters are us, and all we are claiming is our freedom, and every time we screamed for it we are beaten up," Gaigi said.

    Government responds to popular anger

    In what appears to be a response to rising anger over the police's handling of the protests, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said on Wednesday that the country's interior minister has been fired.

    He also announced that most prisoners arrested during the unrest have been freed - except for those involved in criminal activity.

    Whether web activists arrested on January 6 will be included in those released is unclear. Hamada Ben-Amor, the rapper who was arrested the same day, has already been freed. Yet well-known bloggers Slim Amamou and Azyz Amamy, along with other web activists, have not been seen since their disappearance last week.

    'Universal human rights'

    Tamara Wittes, US deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, spoke with Al Jazeera in Doha about the unrest in Tunisia.

    "We see that there are some political as well as economic reasons behind these disturbances," she said.

    "The right to assemble peacefully, to express yourself freely, and to ask your government for a redress of grievances, these are universal human rights. They apply everywhere in the world."

    'Military as saviour'

    Late on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, some people in Tunis interpreted the military's presence on their streets as a sign that the military had staged a coup against President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's government.

    This was not the case.

    Sources told Al Jazeera that there had seen some military trucks in the capital during the night, but that there was no strong military presence on the streets by Wednesday morning.

    Gaigi said that he saw three military trucks near the airport shortly after midnight on Tuesday. The trucks appeared to be heading toward either central Tunis or the city's southern suburbs.

    "The military is seen as the saviour," he said, accusing the police of brutality. 

    "There's a sentiment that [this violence is] orchestrated by civilian police forces to reinforce the government position," he said.

    Marwan Guetari, a Tunis-based man who works in the IT industry, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that despite some speculation on Twitter and Facebook, the military did not appear to ouested the government.

    "It all made sense, it was all logic, and it's what everyone maybe wishing for," he said.

    Read more about Tunisia's unrest on the spotlight page

    In the wake of shootings in recent days, many Tunisians have lost faith in the police, several sources told Al Jazeera. Yet many are more optimistic about the military, which is viewed as more restrained in its response to the protests.

    This perception is influenced by the fact that the army was reportedly not involved in any of the shootings in Kasserine or Thala.

    A video, which sources say was filmed in Kasserine earlier this week, attracting particular attention on social networking sites is reinforcing this view among Tunisians following the protest movement online.

    The video appears to show soldiers "protecting" protesters from the police, playing a calming role by urging the demonstrators to stop throwing stones.

    "The police could not get near the citizens because the army was between them," Guetari said of the video.

    Outrage over television report

    Meanwhile, a report that aired on Tunis TV7, a state-owned broadcaster, has been widely circulated on social networks and condemned as a "falsification".

    The video was screened at 8pm on Tuesday night, and claims to show a bank robbery taking place in Kasserine.

    But Marwan said that robbery was staged for the cameras, in an attempt by the authorities to justify the killing of protesters in Kasserine on the weekend by portraying them as hooligans.

    "This is really serious, this is falsification of information that they're doing," he said.

    He said the high definition footage castes doubt over whether it could really have been sourced from security cameras. One of the alleged robbers wore a helmet which, he noted, closely reassembles the head protection gear worn by Tunisian police officers. 

    Online commentators have also questioned the presence of a man standing inside bank as the door is being broken open, before he disappears inexplicably from the shot.

    "It's all over Facebook and Tunisians are seeing it," Marwan said of the outburst of scepticism regarding the TV7 report.

    "Who do they think they're fooling?" wrote one commentator on a Facebook page where the clip has been posted.

    "To all employees of National TV7, continue your propaganda and disinformation, and you will be punished on D-day," said another.

    Al Jazeera was unable to reach a spokesperson for TV7 for comment on the report.

    A battle of perceptions

    The alleged "fake documentary" comes in the context of a struggle over how the fatalities earlier in the week are perceived, with disagreement over the death toll, and whether those killed in towns including Kasserine and Thala on Saturday and Sunday were peaceful protesters or violent rioters.

    Tunisian police have been criticised for using live ammunition against protesters 

    Samir Laabidi, minister of communications, said that 21 people had died in the government's crackdown on protesters in the centre of the country.

    He accused "Islamic and left-wing extremists" of manipulating the protest movement and said police had been forced to shoot the protesters because they had crossed the "red line".

    "All peaceful demonstrations are tolerated, logical and understandable," he said.

    "Police never fired on protesters, these deaths occurred during attacks and acts of vandalism against public buildings, police stations or schools,"

    Opposition groups argue that the death toll was much higher, and that police should not have used live ammunition against the demonstrators.

    Sadok Mahmoudi, a spokesperson from the regional branch of the Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT), said snipers had fired on the protesters in Kasserine.

    "The number killed has passed 50," he said, citing figures issued by medical staff in the town's hospital for the past three days. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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