TUNIS - Phosphate production in Tunisia's Metaloui and Mdhila resumed on Wednesday and shipments restarted after protesters agreed to temporarily end their sit-in over job demands, officials and protesters told Reuters.

The Metaloui and Mdhila plants, which produce around 80 percent of Tunisia’s phosphate, have been closed by weeks of protests by local youths demanding employment and economic opportunities. Other plants in the south of the country have also been affected.

The deal was reached after protesters ended 50 days of sit-ins, which had halted exports of phosphate - an important source of foreign currency.

But the deal remains fragile after protesters gave the government a week to negotiate their demands or else will halt production again.

"Production restarted at Metaloui and Mdhila the main production regions after the ending of the sit-in by youths," Ali Houchati, a spokesman for Phosphate Gafsa said. "Trucks have started to transport phosphate again."

One of the protesters declined to be named told Reuters that the deadline was an important step in securing serious negotiations with the government to alleviate poverty in the region.

"We can stop production again. We want a clear seriousness this time. will wait and see," said the protester, who declined to be named.

Tunisia was once one of the world’s largest producers of phosphate minerals, which are used to make fertilizers, but its market share fell after a 2011 uprising against the president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Since then, localized protests and strikes have steadily cut into production and caused billions of dollars in losses.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring: the one Arab country to topple a long-serving leader in that year's uprisings without triggering widespread violence or civil war.

But Tunisia has had nine governments since Ben Ali’s overthrow, none of which have been able to resolve deep-rooted economic problems.


(Reporting by Tarek Amara, editing by Louise Heavens) ((tarek.amara@thomsonreuters.com;))