TUNIS, Tunisia, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Police largely abandoned an exclusive Tunisian beachfront town as rioters calling for the ouster of the country's president swarmed the streets, witnesses said.
The town, Hammamet, is a haven for the nearby capital's rich and powerful, The New York Times reported. Violence escalated Thursday in the capital, Tunis, as nationwide protests entered their fourth week.
In Tunis, rioters defied tanks and machine guns, the Times reported, while several were killed, adding to a death toll already in the dozens. The newspaper said some media reported a general strike had been called by protesters for Friday.
The Tunisian military withdrew from positions in the capital Thursday, to be replaced by interior security troops. The Times said the move may indicate a split within the government.
Tunisian President Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali addressed the country Thursday on government television, saying he was setting up a committee to study popular grievances, Voice of America reported. Ali said the committee of independent national figures would look at elections, the media, universities and other issues in the run-up to 2014 parliamentary elections, VOA reported.
Officials said police used bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters in Tunis, while officers were reported overwhelmed in Hammamet, as rioters rampaged through seaside streets, setting banks aflame, ransacking businesses and attacking a mansion owned by a member of Ben Ali's family.
Police officers "huddled defensively, shields raised, around their station," the Times reported.
An Arabic page of social-networking service Facebook called on Tunisians to be prepared to "sacrifice their blood" in Hammamet, where Ali spends vacations and his family has mansions, the Times said.
The Facebook page is named "The People of Tunisia are setting themselves on fire, Mr. President," an allusion to a 26-year-old unemployed man who set himself on fire last month, setting off the wave of unrest, the Times said.