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updated 1/12/2011 8:04:27 PM ET 2011-01-13T01:04:27

Tear gas and stone-throwing youths have reached the heart of Tunisia's once-calm capital as rioters desperate for jobs defied their autocratic president in escalating unrest that poses his biggest challenge in 23 years in power.

The army deployed armored vehicles around Tunis on Wednesday, and the government imposed a virtually unprecedented curfew to try to quell protests over unemployment and political repression that began more than three weeks ago in a central Tunisian town. Outside the capital, at least two deaths were reported from police fire Wednesday.

The demonstrations have set off clashes with police as they spread around the country, leaving at least 23 dead and shattering Tunisia's image as an island of calm in a region beset by Islamist extremism.

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The rioting stayed outside the capital until Wednesday, when the interior minister was fired and clashes broke out hours later, intensifying an unprecedented sense of uncertainty about the future of Tunisia's government. European countries issued warnings about the increased dangers of travel to the country.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, has maintained an iron grip on Tunisia since grabbing power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup, repressing any challenge to a government many see as corrupt and intolerant.

The image of stability and religious moderation helps draw millions of mostly European visitors a year to the Mediterranean beaches of this small North African nation, making tourism the mainstay of the economy. But Ben Ali's tight control has also created the simmering sense of anger and resentment that erupted in the capital and outside it.

A witness in the central city of Douz said there were two deaths at a protest there Wednesday. Slah Nebti, a 32-year-old French teacher, said he saw "police fire and everyone flee. I saw a man who fell, and everyone surrounded him, so I filmed him."

The video, posted on Facebook, showed the victim lying face-down in a pool of blood. Nebti said he didn't know the victim personally, yet learned his identity when he went with other teachers to meet the man's family. He identified the victim as a computer science professor who had spent time in France.

After Nebti posted the video online, some of the victim's students contacted him.

"They sent me messages to say he was a good teacher and a good man," Nebti said by telephone.

In Tunis, hundreds of protesters emerged from a souk, or market, in the capital and hurled stones at police at a key intersection. Officers responded with volleys of tear gas, driving the protesters to disperse into adjoining streets. Stores in the area were shuttered.

It was not clear whether there were any injuries or arrests.

Two army vehicles were posted at the intersection, which is right by the French Embassy, and military vehicles patrolled neighborhoods on the edges of the capital. The government ordered the army to ensure the overnight curfew is obeyed.

In another neighborhood in central Tunis, hundreds of protesters tried to reach the regional governor's office but were blocked by riot police. And at the main national union headquarters, police surrounded protesters who tried to break out. Tensions also erupted along the edges of the capital.

The rioting first erupted in mid-December in an inland town after a young man tried to kill himself. They then hopscotched around the country, as social networks like Facebook spread word of the unrest, circumventing tight control of the media.

Police have repeatedly shot at demonstrators setting fire to buildings and stoning police. The government says 23 people have died but unions and witnesses put the toll at 48 or higher.

The U.S. calls Tunisia a strong ally in the fight against international Islamist terror groups, which Ben Ali has consistently claimed threaten the nation.

There has been no indication of a militant Islamist role in the rioting, but Denmark's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that a risk exists of terror attacks against Western interests in Tunisia. Germany's government issued a statement warning of the "danger of kidnapping and attacks, and Spain issued a travel warning urging its citizens to avoid inland Tunisia and to be careful in tourist areas along the coast.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Wednesday criticized the Tunisian government's response to the protests.

"We are concerned about this violence, and we are concerned about excessive force in recent demonstrations," he said, urging restraint on both sides.

Tunisia's Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi also announced the firing of Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem on Wednesday, and said that most prisoners arrested during the riots are being freed. He said government official Ahmed Friaa would replace Kacem.

Ghannouchi also announced the creation of two commissions of inquiry to probe "excesses committed during the troubles" and "the question of corruption and faults committed by certain officials," a statement said.

The reference to excesses may have referred to the handling of rioters in certain towns. The majority of the dead were counted in three days of unrest, from Saturday to Monday, in the central town of Kasserine.

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The statement also said the two houses of parliament would be called to an extraordinary session Thursday for an "open debate" on measures announced Monday by Ben Ali. These include a promise to create 300,000 jobs over two years, particularly meant to benefit university graduates.

Tunisia, a French protectorate until independence in 1956, has about 10.4 million people. Its government is frequently criticized for stifling dissent and controlling media. The country has seen steady economic growth, but many ordinary young Tunisians can't find jobs and feel they have few prospects for the future. The unemployment rate is nearly 14 percent but higher for educated youths.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for the European Union's external action service, said the rioting was unacceptable and those responsible must be tried.

She added: "We cannot accept the disproportionate use of force by the police against peaceful demonstrators." She also described the firing of the interior minister as a move "in the right direction."

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Angela Doland in Paris and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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