TUNIS – Fourteen people were killed this weekend in the deadliest incidents yet in a unprecedented wave of protests in Tunisia sparked by high food prices and unemployment, the interior ministry said Sunday.
An opposition leader, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, however put the death toll at "at least 20" in clashes between protesters and security forces in the neighbouring towns of Tala and Kasserine, 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of the capital Tunis, and in the town of Requeb.
Many of the country's political parties called on President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to take urgent action and put an end to police using live rounds against protesters.
The Tunisian government meanwhile said that while protests against unemployment were "legitimate", it could not accept attacks on public property.
The clashes marked the biggest unrest to date since protests over rising food prices and rampant youth unemployment erupted in the region in mid-December.
The interior ministry said two people had been killed by "assailants" on Sunday in Kasserine, bringing to five the number of dead there since Saturday. Three more people, including a policeman, were seriously injured in the town.
Five people were killed in Tala, the ministry said, and four killed in Requeb, near the town of Sidi Bouzid, 265 kilometres from the capital. Many members of the security forces were injured in Requeb, the ministry said, including two who were in critical condition.
Several witnesses told AFP the death toll could rise because of "the great number of seriously injured" in the clashes. Union members who did not want to be identified told AFP Sunday that up to 35 people had been killed between the two towns and Requeb.
Chebbi, the leader of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), appealed to Ben Ali "to call an immediate ceasefire to spare the lives of innocent citizens and respect their right to protest".
Chebbi, quoting his party's network of sources in the towns, said funeral processions for the victims had also been fired upon on Sunday.
The Unionist Democratic Union (UDU), an opposition party considered close to the government, called for Ben Ali to take "urgent" action.
In a statement, the party said it "condemned the firing of live rounds and called for an immediate end to the use of arms against citizens".
The UDU said Ben Ali should intervene "urgently to improve the atmosphere, reestablish confidence and restore calm".
In a statement sent to AFP, the government said "this social movement is legitimate... and citizens' demands for employment have their place".
But it said authorities rejected "acts of destruction and vandalism against public property by people who had used Molotov cocktails, stones and sticks".
The government also accused foreign media of "exaggerating and distorting the facts" about the protests, sparking "irrational reactions".
The interior ministry, in a statement carried by government news agency TAP, said protesters had attacked private and public buildings in Tala with firebombs and stones and attempted to storm the headquarters of the local authority.
Security forces tried "in vain" to warn the protesters, before using their weapons "in an act of legitimate self-defence", it said.
Protests began last month after 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who sold fruits and vegetables on the street in Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in a suicide attempt after police confiscated his produce. He died this week.
Before the latest shootings a total of five people had died in Tunisia since the unrest began, two from gunshot wounds and three by suicide, according to an AFP toll.
Civil groups and the opposition say the protests are driven by high unemployment, particularly among well-qualified graduates, and high prices of basic goods including food, mirroring similar unrest in neighbouring Algeria, where at least four people have been killed in riots.