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By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - 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 marginalised southern region.
Tunisia is a small oil producer with around 44,000 barrels per day nationwide. But weeks of protests in southern provinces have already forced two foreign oil and gas companies to stop production or close fields and another removed staff as a precaution.
The army has been protecting energy facilities in south Tataouine province. 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.
"After the army intervened by firing twice in the air, the young protesters got in and with the help of a local engineer were able to close the station," witness Jamel Daifallah said by telephone.
State-run Tatatouine radio also reported the pumping station had been closed. No injuries were reported after the army fired in the air or during the shutdown of the station.
The army did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Six years after its uprising ended Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's autocratic rule as part of the Arab Spring revolts, Tunisia still struggles to address demands for jobs and economic opportunities in marginalised regions such as Tatatouine.
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.
Pictures posted earlier on Saturday on a Facebook account of the Tatatouine movement showed dozens of young men at a metal fence near the Vana station and a small group of troops lining up to protect it.
ENI has said the southern protests have not affected its production. But OMV has 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.
Social unrest over jobs is common in Tunisia, where many in southern and central regions feel they have been missed out by the economic benefits of their democratic transition compared to the northern coastal areas who benefited more from tourism.
But the protests in Tatatouine are especially challenging for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed as he seeks to implement austerity reforms demanded by the IMF and other multilateral lenders keen for Tunisia to rationalise public spending.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alison Williams)