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A gas station attendant pumps fuel into a customer's car at a gas station in Tunis, Tunisia June 1, 2018. Image Credit: REUTERS

Tunis: Tunisia only has enough petrol to last a week, a senior official in the labour union said on Monday, but the energy minister said a new tanker was unloading and that big queues at fuel stations had been caused by a rush of consumers hoarding supply.

Long lines of cars have jammed roads as they wait to fill their tanks around Tunis over recent days in what critics of the government see as another sign of an unfolding crisis in public finances.

The petrol tanker now unloading at Bizerte will give Tunisia an extra few days of supply, taking it to 10-14 days in total, down from the usual 60 days of strategic reserves, said Salouan Smiri, a senior official in the oil section of the UGTT union.

Tunisia is already facing shortages of some subsidised goods, with empty supermarket shelves causing protests last month, as it seeks an international bailout to finance debt repayments and state spending.

“The shortage of fuel supply may resume if the state does not find enough liquidity to pay for upcoming loads,” Smiri said on Shems FM radio.

The government has repeatedly denied that it is struggling to pay importers for goods - such as petrol, flour and sugar - that it sells at a subsidised rate, and has previously blamed shortages on internal speculators.

However, while Energy Minister Naila Nouira blamed the shortage on consumer behaviour and global distribution problems, she also appeared to acknowledge that payments to importers were contributing to snags in supply.

“The reason for the scarcity of fuel is the rush of people... many Tunisians are taking more than they need,” she said on Mosaique FM radio.

“There is financial pressure due to the immediate pace of payment that vendors are asking,” she added.

Last week the ratings agency Moody’s said Tunisia faced large fiscal and external imbalances, and elevating financing risks, representing significant credit weakness.

The government hopes soon to finalise a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue programme involving potentially unpopular reforms that could unlock further bilateral budget support.