Tunisian Interior Minister removed as leadership tries to calm protests

Police and protesters clashed in the centre of Tunis yesterday, prompting the government to impose a night-time curfew in the region.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi also sacked his Interior Minister in an apparent bid to calm tensions after more than three weeks of demonstrations, which reached Tunis for the first time yesterday. Hundreds of protesters, infuriated by unemployment and corruption, emerged from a souk and hurled stones at police. Officers responded with volleys of tear gas, driving the protesters to disperse into adjoining streets. Stores in the area were shuttered, while armoured military vehicles were posted at key points.

It was not clear whether there were any injuries or arrests. Police have in the past shot at demonstrators. According to the government, 23 people have died since the unrest began. Unions and witnesses put the toll at 46 or higher. The protests have posed the most serious challenge to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's two decades of iron-fisted rule and the government appeared keen to quell tensions.

As well as sacking Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, Mr Ghannouchi said most prisoners arrested during the riots were to be freed.

The protests started in December after a young man tried to kill himself, and quickly spread.

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