RAS AJDIR, Tunisia – Tunisian troops fired tear gas and warning shots on Tuesday to stop fighting between local residents and refugees at a camp on the border with Libya.
The U.N. refugee agency withdrew its staff from the camp because of the unrest, said spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes in Geneva and spokesman Firas Kayal in Tunisia.
At one point, an angry crowd of about 100 Tunisians fighting with the refugees at the Choucha refugee camp in Ras Ajdir used iron bars and clubs to attack a car carrying journalists covering the unrest. Ahmed Bahadou, a freelance video journalist on assignment for The Associated Press, said the attackers tried to pull him and the Tunisian driver from the vehicle.
The journalists, including American freelance photographer Gaia Anderson and French radio producer Marine Olivesi, eventually sped away, but not before equipment such as a satellite telephone was stolen, Bahadou said in an interview.
No casualties were immediately reported at the camp of 3,500 refugees on Tuesday, but violence earlier this week has killed people.
Wilkes said tensions escalated Sunday when some of the refugees staged a protest because they believed they were going to be sent back to their home countries. Four Eritrean refugees died when a fire spread through the Choucha camp, raising tension among its residents, she said.
In response, UNHCR, the Red Cross Federation and the Emirati Red Crescent withdrew their staff from the camp, fearing for their safety.
On Monday the protesters blocked a highway near the camp, angering locals and sparking clashes during which at least two people died, Wilkes in an interview. That prompted the UNHCR to call in Tunisian authorities to restore order.
"We understand there is a general atmosphere of lawlessness in the camp," Wilkes said. "We are obviously very worried about the refugees."
Refugees blocked the main cross-border highway again on Tuesday, prompting more fighting between refugees and local residents.
Tunisian troops moved in and fired tear gas and warning shots to restore order, a witness said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The refugees — mostly foreigners from Eritrea, Somalia and Ivory Coast who had moved to Libya to work, then fled its unrest — are frustrated at being kept in the camps so long.
In all, tens of thousands of refugees have fled Libya's fighting to Tunisia, which is struggling to rebuild its economy after a popular uprising forced out its longtime president.
That uprising unleashed a wave of pro-democracy protests now taking place in the Arab world.
Frank Jordans in Paris and Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.