* Some of worst clashes since overthrow of Ben Ali
* Piles pressure on government led by moderate Islamists
* Islam has emerged as most divisive political issue
(Adds interior ministry statement, curfew, clashes in Sousse)
TUNIS, June 12 (Reuters) - Thousands of Salafi Islamists,
angered by an art exhibition they say insults Muslims, rampaged
through parts of Tunis on Tuesday, raising religious tensions
in the birthplace of the Arab Spring and piling pressure on the
moderate Islamist government.
Protesters hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police stations,
a court house and the offices of secular parties in some of the
worst clashes since last year's revolt ousted President Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali and launched uprisings across the Arab world.
Salafis, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam,
blocked streets and set tyres alight in the working class
Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of the capital overnight.
By morning, protests had spread to a number of residential
districts in the capital and to other cities, posing one of the
biggest threats yet to Tunisia's democratic transition.
Stone-throwing youths stopped trams from passing through the
capital's Intilaqa district where demonstrators entered mosques
and used the loudspeakers to call on Tunisians to defend Islam.
Some 2,500 Salafis were still clashing with police in the
area by Tuesday evening, an interior ministry official said,
adding that 162 people had been detained and 65 members of the
security forces had been wounded trying to quell the riots.
The interior and defence ministries imposed a night time
curfew on the capital and seven other areas after Interior
Minister Ali Larayedh told parliament he expected the riots to
continue in the coming days, stretching security forces.
The clashes came a day after the Spring of Arts exhibition
in the upscale La Marsa suburb provoked an outcry from some
Tunisians who say it insulted Islam. The work that appears to
have caused most fury spelt out the name of God using insects.
"These artists are attacking Islam and this is not new.
Islam is targeted," said a youth, who gave his name as Ali and
had removed his shirt as he prepared to confront police in
Ettadamen. "What added fuel to the flames is the government's
silence," said Ali, who did not describe himself as a Salafi.
Officials of the Islamist-led government have condemned the
art works that they say were intended to insult and provoke, but
said there was no excuse for the outbreak of violence that
appeared planned and coordinated and could undermine economic
recovery as the tourism and harvest seasons get underway.
Larayedh vowed the police would confront any more acts of
violence, which he blamed on a mix of violent Salafis, criminal
gangs and Ben Ali loyalists seeking to undermine the revolution.
"We have entered a phase in which we may see similar
incidents and expect it to continue in the coming days and for
the number of arrests to increase," he told parliament.
"These groups will not succeed no matter what they do... We
will confront those that attack national security."
The violence has raised tough questions about the limits of
freedom in the new Tunisia and fuelled fears among Tunisians of
a slide into instability. It has also put the ruling moderate
Islamist party Ennahda in a tough position as it struggles to
satisfy conflicting demands.
While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution,
the struggle over the role of Islam in government and society
has since emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisian
politics and several clashes have erupted in recent months, some
of them involving attacks on alcohol vendors.
Salafis, some of whom are sympathetic to al Qaeda, want a
broader role for religion in the new Tunisia, alarming secular
elites who fear they will seek to impose their views and
ultimately undermine the nascent democracy.
Some secularists had attended the offending exhibition,
saying Tunisians had the right to artistic freedom, and they
have also come under physical attack.
A labour union office in the northwestern city of Jendouba
had been set alight by Salafis overnight while the offices of
secular parties nearby were attacked, Larayedh said, in an
apparent effort to inflame tensions that are already bubbling
between the Islamist-led government and the secular opposition.
Clashes also broke out in the coastal city of Sousse, where
an art centre came under attack by Salafis. A secular party came
under attack in the border town of Tataouine and protesters
blocked the road from Tunis to the city of Bizerte, 60 km away.
Larayedh said the violence appeared organised and some of it
may have been inspired by a recent statement from al Qaeda
leader Ayman al-Zawahri, rather than simply an art exhibition.
On Sunday, Zawahri called on Tunisians to defend Islamic law
from Ennahda, which won the first post-revolutionary election in
North Africa in October and has said it would not seek to impose
sharia in the new constitution that is being drawn up.
The audio recording, released on Islamist websites, said
Ennahda, which leads Tunisia's government in coalition with two
secular groups, had betrayed the religion.
Secularists say Ennahda has been too lenient with Salafis,
many of whom were jailed on terrorism charges before the
revolution, giving them the confidence to step up their demands.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Argouby, Writing by Lin
Noueihed; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Roger Atwood)