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Protests, strike shut down Tunisian town over Libya's halt of border trade

Tunisian security forces use tear gas on hundreds of people protesting against border closure in southern town of Ben Guerdane
Ben Guerdane is one of Tunisia's poorest towns (AFP)

A town in southern Tunisia went on strike again Wednesday, days after clashes broke out with police over an earlier strike. Residents are protesting against a decision by Libyan authorities to halt cross-border trade, on which its economy depends.

Tunisian officials said security forces used tear gas on hundreds of people protesting against the border closure in Ben Guerdane.

"Around 1,000 people rallied outside local government offices and set tyres ablaze in protest against a Libyan decision to close the Ras Jedir border crossing," Interior Ministry spokesman Yasser Mesbah said.

Ras Jedir is the main frontier between western Libya and southeastern Tunisia, a region whose economy is largely dependent on cross-border trade, both legitimate and illicit.

Security personnel fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, Mesbah added.

Shops and offices in Ben Guerdane, a town of 60,000, were all closed in response to the strike called by the UGTT main trade union confederation, according to reports. Only the hospital emergency department, a pharmacy and some schools remained open.

On Monday, police had used tear gas to disperse a protest by hundreds of demonstrators.

Ben Guerdane is one of the North African nation's poorest towns and was in the news recently after Islamic State (IS) group militants crossed over from Libya and tried to storm the town before being repelled by angry residents. Seven civilians and 13 security personnel as well as 55 militants were killed in the failed invasion in early March. 

Authorities closed the border after the attack, putting a further stranglehold on the town, which had already been hard-hit by years of violence in neighbouring Libya. 

Since April, Libyan border officials have stopped the flow of merchandise across the border, sparking anger among residents.

A Libyan official, Hafedh Moammar, said at the time that the border was closed amid "harassment" of Libyan travellers and to stop the flow of smuggled fuel.

In March, Tunisia closed two border crossings with Libya for two weeks in response to the IS attack on Ben Guerdane.

The governor of the Tunisian town of Medenine, Tahar Matmati, said Libya also wanted to impose a "unified tax" on all products crossing the frontier.

In April, Libyan border officials halted all freight traffic through the local Ras Jedir crossing in a bid to stop the smuggling of fuel from Libya, where it is much cheaper than in Tunisia.

Negotiations focused on customs duties have so far failed to reach a settlement.

Despite oppressive heat, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the union offices in Ben Guerdane, but a planned march failed to take place.

"They tell us there are contacts [with the Libyan side], but we don't see anything. We want radical solutions at Ras Jedir. The people are very dissatisfied," local UGTT official Mohsen Lachiheb said.

A man in his 30s who asked not to be identified blamed the town's economic woes on Tunisia's politicians.

"In March, we faced a terrorist attack. They wanted to kill us with bullets. Our politicians want to kill us with their policies," he said angrily.

Several tyres were earlier set alight on the town's streets, but there was no intervention by a large number of police present.

Tunisia has also built a 200-kilometre barrier stretching about half the length of its border with Libya in an attempt to prevent militants from infiltrating.

Meanwhile, four policemen and three suspected militants were killed during security operations Wednesday near the capital and in southern Tunisia, officials said.

The policemen were killed when a militant detonated his explosives belt after a firefight erupted in the Tatouine governorate, the interior ministry said.