TUNIS //Police opened fire on demonstrators in the Tunisian capital yesterday, killing at least one person, witnesses said, as anti-government protests intensified.
A Paris-based rights group issued a new toll of at least 66 people killed in the violence.
Eight were killed in clashes around Tunis overnight, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said, and residents reported that angry youths had burnt cars and attacked state offices, defying a curfew.
As France added to international concerns over a "disproportionate use of violence", state media announced that President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali would address the nation last night for the third time since protests erupted in December.
Police and anti-riot units moved into central Tunis in force yesterday, with the violence that started in the rural western town of Sidi Bouzid having reached the capital on Tuesday.
Tunisia has won praise for economic growth and relative stability, but it has failed to bring down a 14 per cent unemployment rate that is believed to be double that figure for young people and more acute in rural areas.
Mr Ben Ali has pledged to create 300,000 jobs for university graduates in the next two years, and on Wednesday fired Tunisia's interior minister and announced the release of people arrested in the protests who had not been found guilty of criminal acts.
The Tunisian president also said on Wednesday that the government would investigate claims of corruption, and that an inquiry committee would be set up to look into the protests and violence of the past three weeks.
"But that committee must be credible," said Abid Briki, the deputy secretary general of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which is supporting and helping organise peace protests. "The UGTT must be part of it, along with all other components of civil society."
Violence erupted last month after authorities in Sidi Bouzid confiscated the produce of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, an impoverished vegetable-seller. He then set himself on fire in protest outside the regional governor's office.
Mr Bouazizi died last week in the hospital from his burns. His self-immolation inspired a wave of protests over unemployment and state corruption that has swept across Tunisia, the most serious unrest faced by Mr Ben Ali since he took power in 1987.
While many protests are peaceful, protesters in some areas have ransacked and burnt public buildings, and attacked police with stones. Police in turn have opened fire, killing 23 people so far, according to official figures.
Union officials quoted by news services have put the number at about 50, while the Paris federation says 66 have died so far. Authorities say that police have used force only in self-defence, and to protect lives and public property.
Riot police were deployed in central Tunis yesterday and an armoured car mounted with a machine gun was covering the main promenade.
Shopkeepers and cafe owners shuttered their businesses early in the afternoon, as confrontations between police and protesters continued to flare up in parts of the city.
"I also just want this violence to end," said Mohamed Ali, an unemployed youth dashing for cover as police advanced into a fracas with protesters, firing tear-gas canisters. "Of course, I also want a job."
The air filled with the sting of gas as police urged bystanders to disperse. In a nearby bakery, locals from the neighbourhood were stocking up on bread in anticipation of a strike called for today by the Tunis branch of the UGTT.
"I know the strike is meant to send a message to the government, but it's a gamble," said Houssein Mitri, 30, an employee with a multinational company. "And prolonged strikes could hurt the economy."
"A short strike is OK if it sends a message," said a merchant named Fetih, who did not give his surname for fear of reprisal, as he stuffed baguettes into a plastic bag. "The taxes are too high, and there's thievery at high levels."
A two-hour strike is planned for this morning in Tunis and in three other regions, said Mr Briki. He said the strikes were intended to honour people killed in previous unrest. Mr Briki said that further potential for strikes depended on "the climate for negotiation" with the government, following a meeting on Wednesday between Mr Ben Ali and the UGTT secretary general, Abdessalem Jrad.
Meanwhile, protests continued yesterday in rural areas. Thousands of demonstrators led by local UGTT representatives marched through Sidi Bouzid.
While the town has been under tightened security since last month, uniformed police were absent as marchers streamed down the main street, wheeled about and returned to gather before the regional governor's office.
Young men not with the marchers later burnt police cars and ransacked public buildings, despite the efforts of UGTT representatives to stop them, said Rachid Fetini, a businessman in Sidi Bouzid. Police had largely disappeared from the town yesterday without explanation, he said.