A jobless Tunisian who set himself alight in the province of Gafsa after being snubbed by cabinet ministers visiting the unemployment-hit region was in a critical state on Friday, doctors said.
Ammar Gharsalla poured petrol and set himself ablaze on Thursday in front of the main office of the governorate of Gafsa after three ministers visiting the area to look into the unemployment problem refused to meet him, sources said.
Gharsalla, a 48-year-old father of three, had "third degree burns and he is in a critical state," said Fakher Eluati, the coordinator of a specialised burns hospital at Ben Arous, a southern suburb of the capital Tunis.
He had been part of a group of protesters staging a sit-in for days in front of the Gafsa government office to highlight the unemployment problem in the phosphate-rich region.
Tension spiked Friday after the attempted suicide which evoked memories of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller who unwittingly started a wave of protests known as the Arab Spring, when he set himself alight in December 2010.
The Tunisian's unprecedented protest against harassment by officials led to his death from burns in early January.
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His actions sparked a revolt that toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ignited protests across the region which ultimately led to the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.
Social Affairs Minister Khalil Zaouia told AFP Friday that there was "a situation of extreme social tension", and that "nerves are on edge" in the impoverished region.
Zaouia, who was one of the three ministers visiting Gafsa on Thursday, said: "Yesterday, ministers visited the mines for the first time in decades. It was an initial contact and we are sorry that it ended in drama, a gesture of despair."
He said decades of marginalisation could not be rectified immediately.
"Problems have accumulated over decades and now the people want everything to be set right immediately. Even if one speaks of a few months, for them it is an eternity."
In January 2008, Gafsa was the epicentre of a popular uprising against the regime of Ben Ali. It lasted six months and was brutally crushed by the government of the time.
In November, violence broke out in Gafsa over allegedly corrupt hiring practices at the Gafsa Phosphates Company (CPG), the biggest employer in the region.
Tunisia is the fifth biggest producer of phosphates in the world. Last year, CPG and its parent firm lost 450 million euros (576 million dollars) as production plummeted by 60 percent.