Tunisia's president warned Tuesday that rioters will be firmly punished after unusually violent demonstrations over unemployment. At least two protesters have died, one shot by police.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali promised new measures to create jobs and sought to restore calm to a Mediterranean nation that is popular among European tourists, accusing rioters of hurting Tunisia's image.
Ben Ali's government tolerates little public dissent and has been caught off guard by days of discontent. A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks calls Tunisia a "police state" and "troubled" and says Ben Ali has lost touch with his people after 23 years in power.
The president met the families of the dead protesters Tuesday, as well as a hospitalized youth whose attempt to set himself on fire in the central town of Sidi Bouzid sparked 10 days of demonstrations there and elsewhere in Tunisia.
"The law will be applied in all firmness" to punish "a minority of extremists and mercenaries who resort to violence and disorder," Ben Ali said in a televised address, his first public statement on the unrest.
The rioters "harm the country and give it a false image," he said. He accused unnamed political parties of fueling the unrest and using it for political ends.
Police opened fire on one protest, killing an 18-year-old. In another protest, an unemployed youth electrocuted himself on an electricity pylon, according to union officials. Demonstrators set police cars ablaze and threw firebombs at official buildings.
Protests in support of the Sidi Bouzid actions were reported Sunday in numerous towns outside the capital, including in Kairouan and Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya. On Monday, police and demonstrators scuffled briefly in a rally in the capital Tunis calling for jobs.
Ben Ali acknowledged the difficulties for Tunisia's unemployed, and pledged to "respect freedom of opinion and expression." Human rights groups routinely criticize Tunisia for abuses including a lack of media freedom.
Earlier Tuesday, Ben Ali met with his interior minister and top security official about the unrest. He also visited the severe burn ward of a Tunis hospital to see Mohammed Bouazizi, a young university graduate who set himself on fire earlier this month after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling illegally.
Ben Ali, who has run the Muslim nation of 10 million people since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1987, was re-elected in 2009 for a fifth term with 89 percent of the vote.