SIDI BOUZID, TUNISIA // An unexpected and potentially long student holiday began in Tunisia yesterday when the government closed schools and universities indefinitely in a bid to quell a wave of protests led by the nation's young over unemployment.
The move followed a weekend of violence in rural towns, in which authorities said that 14 people were killed as protesters clashed with police, according to Agence France-Presse. Union officials quoted by new agencies put the death toll at 50.
"The number killed has passed 50," said Sadok Mahmoudi, from the regional branch of the Tunisian General Union of Labour, citing tolls issued by medical staff in the regional hospital. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said at least 35 people were killed in the weekend unrest.
"We have a list of the names of the 35," said the federation president, Souhayr Belhassen. "The total figure is higher. It's somewhere around 50, but that's an estimate."
Witnesses reported looting in the town of Kasserine overnight and said demonstrators were fired upon from rooftops.
"It is chaos in Kasserine after a night of violence, of sniper firing and pillaging," Mr Mahmoudi said.
Public displays of discontent are rare in Tunisia, controlled since 1987 by the president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Staff at the regional hospital in Kasserine halted work for an hour yesterday to protest the high number of victims of the government purge, an official said.
Protests started last month after police in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated produce sold in the street by Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, claiming that he lacked a required licence.
In desperation, Bouazizi poured petrol on his body and set himself alight in front of the town's main government office and hundreds of stunned onlookers. Protests have since rippled across the country.
While Tunisia's economy is growing and living standards often match those in western Europe, official unemployment remains at 14 per cent and is widely believed to approach double that among young people.
Protesters in some rural towns have burnt cars and public buildings, while police have sometimes opened fire, according to wire service reports and Tunisia's state news agency.
Authorities said police have used force only in self-defence or to protect lives and public property.
Mr Ben Ali promised to spend 6.5 billion Tunisian dinars (Dh16.2bn) on creating jobs for graduates, and on Monday pledged in a televised address that 300,000 jobs for graduates would be created.
In central Tunis on Monday, dozens of students and others gathered in front of the headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, thrusting their fists in the air and chanting in French, "Enough, Enough", hemmed in by riot police.
"I got an MA in finance recently and I haven't been jobless long," said Ahmed, a demonstrator at the union's headquarters, who declined to give his age or surname. "I'm mainly here to say that I'm tired of corruption and mafia-like business practices."
The protests have captivated young Tunisians who are plugged into online networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook for a steady flow of news and images of the unrest in the country's heartland.
Yesterday students were calling for mass protests via Facebook pages that featured the Tunisian flag stained with blood.
Meanwhile, school and university classrooms were empty as the new government closure went into effect. "This decision is a mistake," said Lotfi Tlili, a lawyer in Sidi Bouzid and a member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, who is representing the family of Bouazizi.
"If people want to demonstrate, they'll demonstrate. This will only provoke them."
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse