TUNISIA. Young men fought running battles with police overnight in several parts of the Tunisian capital, defying a curfew aimed at bringing a halt to the north African country's worst unrest in decades.
In the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, where the unrest started nearly a month ago, witnesses said several thousand people were marching through the streets chanting anti-government slogans.
People taking part in the unrest say they are angry about unemployment, corruption and what they say is government repression. Officials say the protests have been hijacked by a minority of violent extremists who want to undermine Tunisia.
The latest official count for the number of civilians killed in the unrest is 23. But witnesses told Reuters on Wednesday another five were killed and rights groups put the figure higher. A Paris-based rights group said earlier this week it believed the count was at least 35.
President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, struggling to contain the biggest challenge to his rule since he took office over 23 years ago, sacked his interior minister and ordered the release of arrested rioters.
A nightly curfew for Tunis and surrounding suburbs began at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EST) on Wednesday, the first time it had come into operation.
But for several hours after that, crowds in at least two neighbourhoods of the city threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas and fired into the air, Reuters reporters at the scene and witnesses said.
Sidi Bouzid was where the unrest -- initially focused on youth unemployment -- started in December when a jobless local man set fire to himself in protest at his treatment by the authorities. The man later died.
Several witnesses told Reuters by telephone that between 7,000 and 10,000 people were marching through the streets.
Asked what slogans the crowd were shouting, one witness, who did not want to be named, told Reuters said: "It is not just about unemployment any more. It's about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all the freedoms."
Tunisia has come under international pressure over its handling of the protesters from the United States and the European Union, its biggest trading partner.
Defending the death toll from the unrest, the government has said police only fire in self-defense when rioters attack with petrol bombs and sticks.
Some analysts say the Tunisian government is likely to be able to contain the unrest but that in the longer term Ben Ali could find himself weakened and his opponents emboldened.
The protests are being watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest.