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Violence continues as Tunisia mulls new unity government

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-01-16

Looting and violence continued to plague Tunisia over the weekend as interim leaders met over the formation of the country’s first-ever unity government and pave the way for new elections.

The power vacuum in Tunisia created by the abrupt overthrow of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali led to more violence over the weekend as interim leaders scrambled to carve out the first unity government in the country’s history and prepare for presidential elections.

As Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the main train station in the capital city of Tunis was burned down. There were several reports of roaming gunmen firing randomly at buildings in and around the city. AP reported that assailants fired on police guarding the interior ministry and there were reports of at that least two bodies at the scene.

On Sunday, Tunisia’s PDP opposition party said in a statement that a gunfight broke out outside its headquarters, and that soldiers pursued the suspected attackers.

“In the centre of Tunis there was a real lockdown,” reported Cyril Vanier, France 24’s special correspondent in Tunis. “People continued to call up television stations overnight, telling the same stories of looting and of armed gangs coming into neighbourghoods and harassing residents.”

A fire at a prison in the coastal city of Monastir killed at least 42 inmates, according to medical sources, and prisoners fled from a separate prison after a deadly rebellion there.

Ben Ali’s security chief, General Ali Seriati, was arrested along with several colleagues over accusations of plotting attacks against the new leadership, officials said Sunday.

But Tunisian authorities shortened by one hour a curfew in place, saying security in the country had improved, official news agency TAP said Sunday afternoon.


Looters and vigilantes

Gangs defied a night-time curfew to loot and set fire to homes and shops, according to media. Homes in at least one wealthy neighborhood were sacked, AP reported.

“All across the country residents were arming themselves with clubs, sticks and knives to defend their neighbourhoods,” said Vanier. “This has been encouraged by Prime Minister [Mohammed] Ghannouchi and by the police. They cannot cover the entire territory and need people to do some policing on their own.”

Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Ben Ali's powerful wife Leila and the controversial mayor of a town north of Tunis, died of a knife wound in the capital's military hospital, AFP said.

Ghannouchi confirmed reports that members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested, but did not say who. Businesses linked to Ben Ali’s family have been prime targets for vandalism.

As tension continued to grip the Mediterranean nation, thousands of holidaymakers have been evacuated from beach resorts, with Europe and the United States advising citizens against non-essential travel to the country.

Moving toward a unity government?

Parliamentary Speaker Foued Mebazaa, was sworn in as interim president on Saturday, becoming Tunisia’s third president in less than 48 hours. The constitutional council, Tunisia’s top court, announced that new elections were to be held within 60 days.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ghannouchi was given the task of forming the country’s first coalition government. “The Prime Minister had been talking to representatives from all of Tunisia’s civil society, that is authorized opposition party members, the lawyers, human rights leaders, unionists. And today they are supposed to announce the formation of a new unity government,” Vanier said.

The Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party (PCOT) and the Islamist Ennahda Party, both outlawed by Ben Ali, were not included in the meetings.

The political gestures pointed toward the potential for real reconciliation in a country dominated by authoritarian rule for more than two decades. But amid the violence, uncertainty remained over how authority structures linked to Ben Ali would function with opposition and civil society groups.

“It does seem there is a change,” said Vanier “We’re going to have to wait and see if the opposition leaders are really given a chance to take part in the governing of their country for the first time in history.”

Date created : 2011-01-16