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Tunisians protesting over jobs clash with police after arrest of activist

Demonstrators are demanding authorities make good on 2017 promise to provide jobs in gas and oil sector to thousands of unemployed
Protesters in Tunisia's Tataouine region clash with security forces firing tear gas amid demonstration in southern city on Sunday (AFP)

Protesters demanding jobs in Tunisia's energy sector blocked roads with burning tyres on Sunday after the arrest of an activist, before security forces responded with tear gas.

For weeks, demonstrators at a protest camp in the southern Tataouine region have demanded authorities make good on a 2017 promise to provide jobs in the gas and oil sector to thousands of unemployed.

They have blocked roads around the El-Kamour pumping station to prevent tanker trucks from entering the facility, but until Sunday the protest had been mostly peaceful.

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The protest turned violent after the arrest of an activist "wanted" by the authorities, the governor of Tataouine, Adel Werghi, told a local radio station.

The activist, arrested the night before, was identified as Tarek Haddad, the spokesman for the protesters.

An AFP correspondent said demonstrators demanding his release set tyres ablaze in Tataouine and pelted security forces with stones.

Security forces responded with tear gas and the situation remained tense with intermittent clashes throughout the afternoon.

The protests come as Tunisia’s investment minister said last week that the economy may shrink by as much as 7 percent this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Reuters.

The government ended all restrictions on movement and businesses this month and will open its sea, land and air borders on 27 June. Still, the pandemic is hammering the tourism sector, which contributes almost 10 percent to the GDP and is a key source of foreign currency.

The number of unemployed people in Tunisia will increase by 275,000, according to a government study in partnership with the United Nations, Investment Minister Slim Azzabi said, which would raise the unemployment rate to 21.1 percent in 2020, up from about 15 percent at the start of the year.

On Sunday, the interior ministry said 10 people were arrested after the group of protesters "tried to attack police stations with Molotov cocktails".

The local governor said it was "illegal" for protesters, who have been demonstrating for more than a month, to block roads with tents that “they have set up in the middle of streets".

In 2017, protesters blockaded the El-Kamour pumping station for three months demanding jobs.

The sit-in ended after the employment minister signed a deal with representatives of the protesters, brokered by the powerful Tunisian trade union confederation UGTT, pledging to invest 80 million Tunisian dinars a year ($28m) in Tataouine.

The UGTT branch in Tataouine said the promise was never kept and has called for a "general strike" in the region on Monday.

It said in a statement that the work stoppage was meant to denounce the "excessive and unjustified use of force" against protesters.