Tunisian troops restore calm to border after riots

AP News
Posted: May 25, 2011 2:30 PM
Tunisian troops restore calm to border after riots

Tunisian authorities have restored calm to the main border crossing with Libya after local residents clashed with refugees stranded there.

Tunisian Defense Minister Abdul-Karim al-Zubaidi on Wednesday toured the Choucha refugee camp where demonstrations had sparked the rioting. Some 3,500 refugees are housed in the Choucha camp, outside the town of Ras Ajdir.

The police and military presence has been boosted in the area to prevent any further violence.

Refugees fleeing Libya, mainly foreign workers from Eritrea, Somalia and the Ivory Coast, have been living in the Choucha camp near the border for months.

The refugees have been demonstrating recently over fears they will be sent back to their home countries or abandoned in the camp.

On Tuesday, a mob of local residents wielding clubs and iron bars attacked the refugees. Tunisian troops fired tear gas and warning shots to stop the fighting.

The U.N. refugee agency withdrew its staff from the camp because of the unrest, according to spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes in Geneva and spokesman Firas Kayal in Tunisia.

Refugees told French aid group Cimade that some their tents were set on fire on Tuesday night. They also told Cimade that some people were injured, the group said in a statement issued in Paris on Wednesday. It was impossible to independently verify either claim.

At one point Tuesday, an angry crowd of about 100 Tunisians fighting with the refugees used iron bars and clubs to attack a car carrying journalists covering the unrest. Ahmed Bahadou, a freelance video journalist on assignment for The Associated Press, said the attackers tried to pull him and the Tunisian driver from the vehicle.

The journalists, including American freelance photographer Gaia Anderson and French radio producer Marine Olivesi, eventually sped away, but not before equipment such as a satellite telephone was stolen, Bahadou said in an interview.

Wilkes said tensions escalated Sunday when some of the refugees staged a protest because they believed they were going to be sent back to their home countries. Four Eritrean refugees died when a fire spread through the Choucha camp, raising tension among its residents, she said. It was not immediately clear whether the fire was deliberately set.

In response, UNHCR, the Red Cross Federation and the Emirati Red Crescent withdrew their staff from the camp, fearing for their safety.

On Monday the protesters blocked a highway near the camp, angering locals and sparking clashes during which at least two people died, Wilkes said in an interview. That prompted the UNHCR to call in Tunisian authorities to restore order.

Tens of thousands of refugees have fled Libya's fighting to neighboring Tunisia, which is struggling to rebuild its economy after a popular uprising forced out its longtime president. That uprising unleashed a wave of pro-democracy protests now taking place in the Arab world.