May 21, 2017 / 12:45 PM / 4 months ago

Tunisia protesters close second oil pump station in south

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian protesters demanding jobs and a share in energy wealth have closed down another oil pumping station in defiance of government efforts to protect oil and gasfields with troops and negotiate an end to unrest.

Protesters peacefully shut a pumping station at Faouar in southern Kebili province, where French oil company Perenco operates, according to TAP state news agency and Mosaique FM and Shems FM radio stations.

It is the second pumping station closed by protests in the southern provinces, where for weeks groups of unemployed men have been holding sit-ins and threatening to blockade oil and gas production to demand more for their marginalized regions.

“We shut down the pumping station for Perenco, where we are carrying out our sit-in protest. We had no problem with the army. We are just demanding jobs, and more transparency about where the oil wealth goes,” Faker Ajmi, one of the protesters told Reuters by telephone.

The energy ministry did not reply to a request for comment. A spokesman for Perenco also did not immediately respond to an email asking about the status of their operations. Officials said earlier this month Perenco halted production at two fields for gas and condensate output.

Tunisia is only a small oil producer with an output of about 44,000 barrels per day nationwide. But weeks of protests are putting pressure on Prime Minister Youssef Chahed at a time his government seeks to undertake key economic and austerity reforms demanded by international lenders.

The army has been protecting energy facilities in southern Tataouine and Kebili provinces and also state-run phosphate operations, another key source of government revenue that has been targeted for protests in the past.

After troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd on Saturday, they reached a deal to avoid clashes and allow an engineer to close the Vana pumping station in Tatatouine, where Italy’s ENI and Austria’s OMV operate.

ENI has said the southern protests have not affected its production. But OMV removed 700 non-essential staff and contractors as a precaution. Perenco already halted production at its Targa and Baguel fields, while Canada-based Serinus Energy closed its Chouech Essaida field.

Six years after an uprising ousted Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali as part of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia is praised as a model of transition. But it still struggles to address demands for jobs and opportunities in marginalized regions.

Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Richard Lough

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