The Tunisian Defense Ministry warned on Sunday that it may resort to force against anyone seeking to storm the southern oil and gas facilities in wake of weeks of protests and unrest over jobs and funding in the southern provinces.
It said that the army and police will work against any attempts to storm the facilities in the region of al-Kamour in the desert state of Tataouine in the South.
The ministry added in a statement that the oil facilities in al-Kamour have been completely secured with army and national guard forces, saying that the oil pump there has resumed operation.
“The Defense Ministry warns citizens of the risk of prosecution following altercations with military units, and bodily harm resulting from aggression or violations accessing facilities under their control,” it announced.
Protesters pressing demands for jobs and a share of the country’s energy wealth forced the closure of two oil and gas pumping stations, where Italy’s ENI SpA, Austria’s OMV AG and France’s Perenco operate, and where Prime Minister Youssef Chahed had already deployed troops.
Tunisia is a small oil producer with an output of about 44,000 barrels per day.
But the closures represent a clear challenge to the authority of Chahed’s government as it tries to enact economic reforms demanded by international lenders and consolidate Tunisia’s transition to democracy six years after an uprising ended the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
State television said that the government has held a security meeting with the defense and interior ministers and the army and security commands on Sunday night to tackle the situation in Tatouine.
The outcomes of the meeting were not revealed.
Tunisian protesters shut an oil pumping station that feeds a coastal terminal on Saturday after a standoff with troops, escalating a weeks-long protest for jobs in their marginalized southern region.
The army has been protecting energy facilities in Tataouine. But after troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd, an agreement was reached to allow a local engineer to close the Vana pumping station to avoid any clashes, state radio and two witness said.
This was the first time that the army opened fire in the air since being tasked by President Beji Caid Essebsi in May to protect the oil and gas wells and phosphate mines from any protest movement that may halt production.
Hundreds of protesters have since April 23 been blocking the passage of trucks and vehicles to Tatouine’s oil fields, erecting tents in al-Kamour, a main transit point leading to the petroleum fields.