Thousands of demonstrators marched through Tunisia's capital on Friday to demand the resignation of the country's autocratic leader, while thousands of foreign tourists were evacuated amid fears of more unrest.
Tunisian medical officials, meanwhile, tallied at least 13 new deaths in rioting late Thursday. The protest Friday was tense, with demonstrators confronting and shouting at soldiers, but no violent incidents were apparent.
Protesters chanted slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a day after he went on TV to promise lower food prices and new freedoms for Tunisians. Demonstrators shouted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" One poster read "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.
Pent-up anger at unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt has exploded into protests and clashes with police over the past few weeks. The official death toll in the riots is 23, but that figure has not been updated in days. Opposition leaders put the figure at three times that.
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have described the corruption in Tunisia, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the U.S. cables.
The demonstrations started in mid-December in the provinces but this week reached Tunis, the capital of this North African tourist haven on the Mediterranean.
Hundreds of police with shields and riot gear blocked the avenue Friday in front of the Interior Ministry, where over the years there have been reports of torture. The march was organized by Tunisia's only legal trade union, which also went ahead with a symbolic two-hour strike.
The unrest was taking a toll on Tunisia's key tourism industry.
British tour operator Thomas Cook said it was asking its roughly 3,800 British, Irish, and German customers in Tunisia to leave the country, while some 200 Dutch tourists were repatriated Thursday night via a chartered flight.
U.S. and European governments have issued a series of travel alerts warning citizens away from nonessential travel to Tunisia.
Tunisia is known for its wide sandy beaches, desert landscape, ancient ruins and bustling bazaars.
- Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
- autocratic leader
- Thomas Cook