Monday, January 24, 2011

Police fire teargas at Tunis protesters

Police fired teargas canisters to disperse protesters in central Tunis on Monday as pressure grew for the removal of government ministers linked to ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The protesters, mostly from marginalized rural areas who had camped out overnight at the prime minister's office, broke windows at the nearby finance ministry building.

More than a week after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took the reins of an interim coalition following the overthrow of Ben Ali, he and other former loyalists of the feared ruling party face growing opposition despite a series of concessions.

What shape an eventual popular leadership might take is unclear. Opposition parties exist but are not well known after decades of oppression. A hitherto banned Islamist party has called for early elections and may find support.

Police put under house arrest Abdelwahhab Abdalla, the Ben Ali political adviser in charge of monitoring the media, state television said on Monday.

Authorities said on Sunday Abdalla, who managed government appointees to state media outlets, had vanished and was sought by police.

The interim government said last week 33 members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested. On Sunday, police arrested two confidantes of Ben Ali.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday that France, the former colonial power, would offer emergency aid to Tunisia as it grapples with a transition to a new government. He acknowledged criticism of Paris's past support for Ben Ali.

"There was a desperation, a suffering, a feeling of suffocation which, we have to admit, we did not properly assess," he said at a Paris news conference.

Sarkozy said France would hunt down wealth plundered during Ben Ali's time in power and return it to Tunisians, and the Paris prosecutor said later it had opened a preliminary investigation into his French assets.

French-educated Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after violent protests against high food prices, unemployment and his authoritarian rule. French authorities denied him entry but suspect he holds property in France.


In Tunis on Monday, police and army blocked off around 500 protesters who were inside the government compound in the old city, or casbah. Around 1,000 other demonstrators filled the streets and a large square nearby, unable to approach the area.

"Why don't they let us break the barriers and join our brothers? Why do they say they will allow us the right to protest then stop us?," said Kamal Ashour. from Tunis.

"Are they afraid the government will really be shaken? It seems that Ben Ali's regime is back."

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