TUNIS, Tunisia – Tear gas and stone-throwing youths reached the heart of Tunisia’s once-calm capital Wednesday as rioters desperate for jobs defied their autocratic president in escalating unrest that poses his biggest challenge in 23 years in power.
The army deployed armored vehicles around Tunis, and the government imposed a virtually unprecedented curfew to try to quell protests over unemployment and political repression that began more than three weeks ago in a central Tunisian town. Outside the capital, at least two deaths were reported from police fire Wednesday.
The demonstrations have set off clashes with police as they spread around the country, leaving at least 23 dead and shattering Tunisia’s image as an island of calm in a region beset by Islamist extremism.
The rioting stayed outside the capital until Wednesday, when the interior minister was fired and clashes broke out hours later, intensifying an unprecedented sense of uncertainty about the future of Tunisia’s government. European countries issued warnings about the increased dangers of travel to the country.
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, has maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenge to a government many see as corrupt and intolerant.
The rioting first erupted in mid-December in an inland town after a young man tried to kill himself. They then hopscotched around the country, as social networks like Facebook spread word of the unrest, circumventing tight control of the media.
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