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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian troops fired shots in the air to disperse protesters who tried to close down a gas pumping in southern Tatatouine province as part of their demands for jobs, a witness and two local radio stations said on Saturday.
There were no immediate reports of any injuries around the gas pumping station near Vana in Tatatouine, where troops have been stationed as part of plans to protect gas and oil facilities from disruption.
Mosaique FM radio and a local state radio both reported troops had shot in the air to break up a group of protesters who for weeks have been threatening to blockade roads and shut gas production in southern Tunisia.
"The young men were angry and shouting about the need for work and the army fired in the air when they arrived at the pumping station. Troops are refusing to let them in," Jamal Daifallah, a local protester told Reuters by telephone.
A military helicopter was circling overhead. Pictures posted on a Facebook account of the Tatatouine movement showed dozens of young men at a metal fence near the station and a small group of troops lining up to protect it.
The protests in Tatatouine are challenging Prime Minister Youssef Chahed as he seeks to implement austerity reforms. The protests already forced two foreign energy companies to halt production or remove staff as a precaution.
Around 1,000 protesters have been camped out for weeks in the Sahara in a region where Italy's ENI and Austria's OMV have operations. But government offers of jobs and development have so far failed to end the standoff.
Six years after its uprising ended Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's autocratic rule, the North African state is still struggling to address the needs for jobs and economic opportunities in marginalised southern regions like Tatatouine.
Social unrest is common to demand work and development. In the past protesters have targetted Tunisia's strategic phosphate production. But the economy is just recovering from the impact of two major militant attacks on tourists in 2015.
Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Patrick Markey