Tunis - Tunisia's justice minister on Tuesday condemned as terrorism a spate of overnight attacks on government offices by gangs including Islamist hardliners, warning that those guilty would be punished.
However, the rampage in several areas of the capital Tunis and in the northwest, has raised questions over the real mastermind of the violence and renewed doubts over whether the Islamist government, albeit moderate, is able to stamp it out.
Police fired tear gas to quell the violence by a mixed group of ultra-conservative Salafists and other attackers, who torched and pillaged a local court in west Tunis and attacked several police stations in the north of the capital, ministry spokesperson Khaled Tarrouche said.
Seven officers were slightly injured in the clashes and over 50 people arrested, he added.
Justice Minister Nourredine Bhiri condemned the "terrorist act" and pledged that the guilty would "pay a heavy price".
"These are terrorist groups which lost control, they are isolated in society," Bhiri told radio Shems FM.
The Salafists have in recent weeks intensified their violence in Tunisia, and several towns in the northwest have seen police stations torched and bars attacked by the radical Islamists, some armed with clubs and swords.
Act of violence
Moderate Tunisians express deep concern over the rising power of the radicals since the revolution that toppled the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and subsequent elections ushered in a new Islamist government.
While the government has been criticised by al-Qaeda for not calling for Islamic rule in the North African nation, moderate Tunisians have questioned if it has been too lax in dealing with radicals such as the Salafists.
Monday night's events have also sparked questions on who masterminded the rioting.
Several commentators noted that it came just two days after al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Tunisians to rise up to claim sharia law, while others wonder if it was a plot by Ben Ali's regime to destabilise the country and reclaim power.
"The fact that the violence erupted in several places at the same time makes us think that it was organised," said Tarrouche, adding that an investigation had been launched.
He added that security forces have been deployed to all the sites concerned and "will not allow any act of violence".
At Essijoumi in west Tunis, the court prosecutor's office was burnt down while the wreckage of a civil protection truck remained in the middle of the road early Tuesday.
"A group of criminals attacked the court at around 22:00. There was a lot of destruction, and computers were stolen," state prosecutor Amor Ben Mansour told AFP.
"It's serious because the court represents the sovereignty of the state," he added.
Other areas, including Ettadhamen and Intilaka in the west of the city, were also hit by the violence.
In the northern suburb of La Marsa, rioters tried to force their way into an art gallery where several paintings had been slashed a day ago by Islamists.
Exhibition director Luca Luccatini has filed a suit and said the violence was the result of a mix of "fanatism, manipulation and a desire to become news".
The regional office of the powerful union UGTT in Tunisia's north-western town of Jendouba was also burned early on Tuesday by Salafist groups, TAP agency said.
The Salafist movement comprises several branches. Some adherents focus strictly on religion, some are politicians and some are jihadists who see violence as a legitimate means to impose their faith.
Researchers put Salafist numbers in Tunisia at around 10 000.