Clashes during Tunisia protest over economy

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Clashes erupted Wednesday in two Tunisian cities when protesters attacked symbols of the state during demonstrations calling for greater investment in their impoverished regions.

Dozens of protesters attempted to storm government offices in the southern mining town of Gafsa before being driven back by tear gas. They later ransacked the local headquarters of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that dominates the government, tossing the furniture out the third story windows and setting it alight in the street while crowds cheered.

In the northwestern city of Siliana, young men threw stones at police and attacked their stations after the main demonstrations, before being driven off by security forces.

General strikes were held in Siliana, Gafsa and the coastal city Gabes protesting poor economic conditions and what protesters say are unequal investment opportunities favoring the capital and nearby cities.

Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring by overthrowing its dictator in 2011, partly over the lack of jobs for young people, especially in the impoverished interior. Nearly three years after the revolution, however, the elected Islamist-led government has been unable to energize the economy or redress the historic inequalities between the wealthier coast and the interior.

"We live in desperate conditions because of unemployment, poverty and misery and we are only asking to live in dignity," said Badreddine Hamlaoui, a 19 year-old who lost an eye to birdshot during protests in Siliana a year ago. "I ask myself why Siliana is neglected and excluded from development."

The timing of Wednesday's strikes was to mark the anniversary of the Siliana protests when people marched to call for a new provincial governor and were dispersed by police wielding shotguns. At least 332 people were wounded, many partially blinded by the birdshot.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, unemployment is 15.7 percent in the country, but in places like Siliana or Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution began when a young fruit vendor set himself on fire, it rises to 20-29 percent _ and double that for young people.

"We continue to be forgotten and marginalized because of the policies of the current government," said Mohammed Miraoui, head of the local labor union branch in Gafsa. "From one day to another, the economic and social situation is deteriorating with not a single project from the 2012 budget even implemented."

Since its election in October 2011, Ennahda has ruled with two smaller secular parties, but amid the unrest, unmet expectations and terror attacks following the revolution, it has been unable to stem the economy's slide.

On Monday, the Moody's international rating service downgraded Tunisia's government-issued bond rating another notch to Ba3, now three levels below investment grade. Fitch downgraded Tunisia on Oct. 30 and Standard & Poor's had done so in August, both dropping the country well below investment grade.

The demonstrations came after the government acceded to opposition demands to step down in favor of a Cabinet of technocrats before new elections, but talks have now broken down over who will be the caretaker prime minister.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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