TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Authorities said Monday that a 14-year-old boy was killed by a stray bullet fired during a violent protest in the Tunisian town where the uprisings that spread across the Arab world first began.
The news came as a fresh jolt to Tunisia as it prepares for landmark Oct. 23 elections for a body meant to write a new constitution.
Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi insisted in an address to the nation, after news of the death spread on Monday, that the government would stick to the election date, which has already been delayed once. He accused religious and other extremists of fomenting unrest in several towns in recent days aimed at derailing preparations for the vote.
Overnight, demonstrators in the poor inland town of Sidi Bouzid hurled Molotov cocktails at security forces, while police and soldiers responded with warning shots, the TAP news agency reported.
Two other protesters were seriously wounded in the clashes in Sidi Bouzid, where residents say little has changed since protests erupted there in December over unemployment, corruption and repression.
Those demonstrations spread around long-quiet Tunisia, forcing the autocratic president to flee and inspiring anti-government protests in several other Arab countries this year.
The momentum of the Arab Spring now appears to be stalling, however. Tunisia, a symbol of the movement, has seen a resurgence of violent protests in recent days, as the interim government struggles to build a new democracy.
In Sidi Bouzid's latest protest, youths gathered late Sunday and lobbed gasoline bombs and rocks at police and soldiers, TAP reported. The protesters blocked the town's main road with a car they set on fire and smashed storefronts, TAP reported.
TAP cited district security chief, Samir Melliti, as saying the 14-year-old was hit by a "stray bullet" in clashes between security forces and protesters. TAP said the police and troops were firing warning shots to disperse the crowd.
No other details about the boy were immediately available.
Nine people were arrested, four during the protest and five others during raids afterward, TAP reported. Vandalism and scattered skirmishes continued until dawn, and military reinforcements were sent to the town while a helicopter circled overhead, TAP said.
In his address, the prime minister called the violence "a premeditated plan" by marginal groups worried they will lose out in the elections for a multiparty assembly that will write a constitution to replace the charter of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"These parties doubt they will win the elections and fear that the vote will reveal their true weight on the political stage," he said. Some 100 political parties have emerged since Ben Ali fled, many with limited support and organizational experience.
Speaking from the government headquarters in the Casbah of the capital Tunis, he said "extremist religious currents and other extremists from the left and right" were behind the violence.
He did not name anyone in particular, and the country's leading Islamist party did not immediately respond to the accusations.