EU leads international condemnation of Tunisia

Brussels–The European Union led international condemnation on Monday of Tunisia's weekend crackdown on a wave of food protests which killed 14 people, and urged Tunis to restrain its security forces.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was "concerned about events that have been taking place in Tunisia in the past days" and called for the release of detained protesters.

"We deplore the violence and the loss of lives and express sympathy to families of the victims," Ashton's spokeswoman said.

"We call for restraint in the use of force and for respect of fundamental freedoms."

"We call for the immediate release from detention of bloggers, journalists, lawyers and other people who were detained, who were peacefully demonstrating in Tunisia."

France, the former colonial power, appealed for calm after weeks of protests against high prices and unemployment in the North African country turned deadly at the weekend.

"We deplore the violence, which caused casualties, and call for calm," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, adding that only dialogue would allow Tunisians to overcome the economic and social problems confronting them.

"Cooperation between France and Tunisia is strongly focused on employment and will remain so. Now there is an urgent need for calm in Tunisia."

The United States last week raised concerns with Tunisia about its handling of the unrest and called for "restraint".

Washington also expressed concern over apparent "interference" with the internet by the Tunis government, accused of arresting dissident bloggers and hacking and blocking certain websites.

Valero said France had no details on these alleged activities but reiterated its commitment to "freedom of expression in Tunisia and throughout the world."

Tunisia's government said 14 people were killed in clashes over the weekend when its security forces opened fire on protesters. The interior ministry said its forces shot at the crowds "in self defence" and only after warnings were given.

An opposition leader said at least 20 people were killed in clashes between protesters and security forces in the neighbouring south-central towns of Tala and Kasserine, 290km south of Tunis, and in the town of Requeb.

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.

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