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Clashes during Tunisia protest over economy

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BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA | November 27, 2013 09:55 AM EST | AP

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Clashes erupted in one of three Tunisian cities where tens of thousands of people demonstrated Wednesday over their declining economic situation, calling for greater investment in their impoverished regions.

Dozens of protesters attempted to storm government offices in the southern mining town of Gafsa before being driven back by tear gas. They later ransacked the local headquarters of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party that dominates the government, tossing the furniture out the third story windows and setting it alight in the street while crowds cheered.

General strikes were called in the northwestern city of Siliana, Gafsa and in Gabes, which is along the southeastern coast, calling for greater government investment. Witnesses reported that all shops and cafes were closed.

Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring by overthrowing its dictator in 2011, partly over the lack of jobs of young people, especially in the impoverished interior. Nearly three years after the revolution, however, the elected Islamist-led government has been unable to jump-start the economy or redress the historic inequalities between the wealthier coast and the poorer interior.

"We live in desperate conditions because of unemployment, poverty and misery and we are only asking to live in dignity," said Badreddine Hamlaoui, a 19 year-old who lost an eye to birdshot during protests in Siliana exactly one year ago. "I ask myself why Siliana is neglected and excluded from development."

The timing of Wednesday's strikes was to mark the one-year anniversary of the Siliana protests when people marched to call for a new provincial governor and were dispersed by police wielding shotguns. At least 332 people were wounded, many partially blinded by the birdshot.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, unemployment is already a high 15.7 percent in the country, but in places like Siliana or Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution first began when a young fruit vendor set himself on fire, it rises to 20-29 percent — double that for young people.

"We continue to be forgotten and marginalized because of the policies of the current government," said Mohammed Miraoui, head of the local labor union branch in Gafsa. "From one day to another, the economic and social situation is deteriorating with not a single project from the 2012 budget even implemented."

Since its election in October 2011, Ennahda has ruled with two smaller secular parties, but amid the unrest, unmet expectations and terror attacks following the revolution, has been unable to stem the economy's slide.

On Monday, the Moody's international rating service downgraded Tunisia's government-issued bond rating another notch to Ba3, now three levels below investment grade.

The downgrade follows that of Fitch on Oct. 30 and S&P's in August, both well below investment grade, making it even more difficult for Tunisia to borrow on international markets and further reducing international confidence in the North African nation's economy.

Since the revolution, international ratings agencies have been steadily dropping the country's investment grade in light of the unrest and now a political deadlock.

The demonstrations come after the government acceded to opposition demands to step down in favor of a Cabinet of technocrats before new elections, but talks have now broken down over who will be the caretaker prime minister.