Tunisia protests: More than 700 arrested after days of unrest

By Laura Smith-Spark and Jackie Castillo, CNN

(CNN) -- Tunisian police have arrested at least 773 people since anti-austerity protests broke out in the nation this week, the interior ministry told state media Friday.

Protesters face various charges, including vandalism, looting, attacks against public property and causing fires and road blocks, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Major Khelifa Chibani told state news agency TAP. The unrest started Monday.

More than 85% of the people arrested are teenagers and young adults between ages 15 and 30, the news agency said.

According to Chibani, 97 police officers have been injured and 88 police vehicles damaged since protests broke out, TAP reported. Several police stations have been set on fire.

Incidents of vandalism dropped sharply on Thursday night, Chibani added.

The United Nations human rights office expressed "concern" Friday over the high number of people that have been arrested since the unrest began.

In a written statement, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said authorities must ensure that people are not arrested in an arbitrary manner and that their rights are respected.

"We are closely watching the demonstrations across Tunisia and the authorities' response to them," he said. "The authorities must ensure that those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are not prevented from doing so."

Colville also urged those taking to the streets to exercise restraint and remain calm.

The protests have broken out in response to an unpopular new Finance Act, which saw price hikes and VAT increases imposed from January 1. They come at a time when Tunisia's economy is struggling and many people are suffering real hardship.

The International Monetary Fund agreed in 2016 to a four-year loan program worth about $2.8 billion but payments are tied to the Tunisian government carrying out economic and social reforms.

A new anti-austerity youth movement -- named Fech Nestannow, which translates as "What are we waiting for?" -- has sprung up since the start of the year and is seeking to rally opposition to the measures.

Protests are common in Tunisia in January, when many people mark the anniversary of the toppling in 2011 of the country's longtime autocratic leader, President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.

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