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Deadly Riots Escalating in Tunisia

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Tunisian police fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters in the capital Friday after some climbed atop the roof of the Interior Ministry, a symbol of the iron-fisted government they want to oust.

The demonstrators were marching through Tunis to demand the resignation of the country's autocratic leader, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many shouted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!" Another poster read "We won't forget," a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.

Hundreds of police with shields and riot gear blocked the avenue Friday in front of the Interior Ministry, where over the years there have been reports of torture. The march was organized by Tunisia's only legal trade union, which also went ahead with a symbolic two-hour strike.

Plainclothes policemen were seen kicking unarmed protesters and beating them with batons.

Thousands of tourists, meanwhile, were evacuated from the North African tourist haven amid growing unrest.

Pent-up anger at high unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt has exploded into riots in the past few weeks.

Ben Ali, 74, has maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenges. He has locked up many opposition figures, clamped down on dissent and kept tight control over the media but has not been able to resolve the country's rising unemployment, officially at nearly 14 percent, but higher for educated youths.

The riots began after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit.

The official death toll in the riots is 23, but opposition leaders put the figure at three times that, and medical workers on Friday reported another 13 new deaths and over 50 injuries from late Thursday alone.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have described the corruption in Tunisia, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the U.S. cables.

The unrest was taking a heavy toll on the key tourism industry in Tunisia, which is known for its wide sandy beaches, desert landscape, ancient ruins and bustling bazaars.

British tour operator Thomas Cook said it was asking its roughly 3,800 British, Irish, and German customers in Tunisia to leave the country, while some 200 Dutch tourists were repatriated Thursday night via a chartered flight.

U.S. and European governments have issued a series of travel alerts warning citizens away from nonessential travel to Tunisia.

The unrest was having diplomatic consequences as well.

Tunisia's ambassador to the U.N. cultural and educational agency resigned amid the deadly riots. Mezri Haddad, ambassador to Paris-based UNESCO, said on France's BFM television Friday, "I am resigning today."

He said he is resigning because he doesn't want to contribute to something that "is the opposite of my convictions and my conscience."

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