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Clashes erupt in Tunisia amid government unity talks

Tunisian special forces exchanged heavy gunfire with members of ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s security guard on Sunday as the country's interim leadership prepared to unveil a new unity government on Monday.

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A fierce gun battle broke out Sunday, between Tunisian special forces and members of  security forces loyal to deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a military official said.

The clashes near the presidential palace in the seaside suburb of Carthage came hours after Ben Ali's security chief, General Ali Seriati, was arrested along with several colleagues over accusations of plotting attacks against the country's new interim leadership.

Seriati, a key figure in the security apparatus put in place by the authoritarian Ben Ali, is accused of plotting against the government and fomenting armed attacks, according to Tunisia's state media.

 
The weekend was punctuated by incidents of violence, including looting and arson, after Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia late Friday. There were several reports of roaming gunmen firing randomly at buildings in and around the city.
 
Earlier, Tunisian state television reported two other gun battles had broken a relative calm enforced by the army in the country's capital of Tunis, one near the central bank building and another outside an opposition party's headquarters.

A Paris-based photojournalist, Lucas Mebrouk Dolega, who works for EPA photo agency, was in critical condition Sunday after being hit Friday in the face by a tear gas canister, according to a French consular official in Tunisia.

“All across the country residents were arming themselves with clubs, sticks and knives to defend their neighbourhoods”, reported Cyril Vanier, France 24’s special correspondent in Tunis. "This has been encouraged by Prime Minister [Mohamed] Ghannouchi and by the police. They cannot cover the entire territory and need people to do some policing on their own”
 
Moving toward a unity government?
 
Unrest and tension continued in Tunis as political leaders scrambled to carve out a unity government to fill in the power vacuum created by former President Ben Ali’s abrupt departure following weeks of deadly protests.
 
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who held talks with opposition leaders on Sunday, said in a statement that a new government would be unveiled on Monday.

Tunisian opposition leaders including Najib Chebbi, founder of the opposition party PDP and Mustafa Ben Jaafar from the Union of Freedom and Labour will be part of the new coalition, sources close to talks told Reuters news agency.

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.
 
France 24's Christopher Moore reports from Tunis, Tunisia

Ghannouchi has been 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".
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