TUNIS: Radical Muslims burst into a Tunisian school on Wednesday and assaulted its chief after he barred entry to a teenage girl wearing a face veil, or niqab, teachers said, an incident that underlined rising Islamist-secularist tensions.

Since secular dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in the first “Arab Spring” uprising two years ago, Tunisia has seen mounting strife between secularists who long held power and Islamists whose influence is increasing.

Moderate Ennahda Islamists who won a free election now head the Tunis government. But hardline Salafists are pushing for Islamic law in the country, raising secularist fears for a loss of individual freedoms, women’s rights and democracy.

Murad Ben Hamouda of the teachers’ union at Manzel Bouzelfa secondary school said Salafists stormed into the compound, smashed a few cars and “tried to kill the director for refusing the entry of a schoolgirl dressed in niqab into the classroom”. School superintendent Abdelwahed Sentati was beaten with sticks and stones, suffering several broken bones, Hamouda said, and the assailants then fled. There have been no arrests, and interior ministry police had no immediate comment.

How many Salafists were involved in the attack was not immediately clear. But teachers said dozens of radicals lingered on the premises afterwards, chanting anti-secular slogans.

Khalifa Dhif, another teacher, said classes at the school and others in Manzel Bouzelfa had been suspended in protest at the assault and the union was considering a strike.

After fierce and extended debate, the education ministry decided last year to preserve a classroom ban on women wearing the full face veil of strict Muslims.

Manzel Bouzelfa is around 45 km east of the capital Tunis and near Hammamet, a well-known tourist resort.—Reuters