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Tunisia on edge as slain opposition leader is buried

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Tunisia braced itself for a day of mourning and protests on Friday as it prepared to bury murdered opposition leader Chokri Belaid and hold a general strike amid growing tension over his assassination earlier this week.


Tunisia braced itself for a general strike on Friday after the country was thrown into political turmoil following the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

Belaid was murdered on February 6 by masked gunmen outside of his home in the capital Tunis, in an act that sparked protests across Tunisia that left at least one person dead. The offices of the country’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party, which has been in power since October 2011 elections, were also torched during the unrest.

Tunis Air suspended all its flights on Friday because of a general strike called by unions in protest at the killing of opposition politician Chokri Belaid, a spokesman said.

The spokesman for the national airline said flights operated by other airlines were not affected.


As tensions mounted, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali, himself a member of Ennahda, vowed to form a government of technocrats and called for fresh elections – a move his party strongly rejected on Thursday.

The same day, police fired teargas at demonstrators in central Tunis as they marched near the interior ministry on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the centre of the 2011 uprising that toppled the country’s former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Meanwhile, lawyers, judges and some teachers began a two-day strike, as the influential UGTT trade union called for a general strike on Friday. The French embassy in Tunis also announced that its schools in the city would be closed on Friday and Saturday.

Further unrest is expected on Friday as thousands gather after noon prayers to pay their respects to the slain opposition leader, whose funeral in Tunis is due to start at 1pm GMT.

Proposal rejected

Stoking the tension surrounding Belaid's murder, the country's political crisis deepened on Thursday as Prime Minister Jebali’s plans to form a new non-political administration and hold fresh elections were met with fierce opposition by Ennahda, revealing deep divisions within the party.


"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda's vice-president, told Shems FM radio. "We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government."

Following Ennahda’s remarks, Tunisia’s ambassador to France criticised the party’s position as an attempt to cling to power.

“It’s dangerous,” Ambassador Adel Fekih told FRANCE 24. “For the last few months [the government has been at] an impasse. I know that since June there have been a number of parties within the coalition who have asked for a cabinet reshuffle because the people’s needs weren’t being met. The Ennahda party has been determined to maintain their predominance in government, a position that they continue to hold today.”

Ennahda accused

Following Belaid’s death, Nejib Chebbi, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, openly blamed Interior Minister Ali Laraydeh, an Ennahda member, for the murder and demanded his sacking "because he knew Belaid had been threatened and he did nothing."

Belaid’s family also accused Ennahda, and in particular its leader Rachid Ghannouchi, of being responsible for his death.

Belaid's brother Abdelmajid blamed Ennahda’s chief outright for the murder of the 48-year-old leftist leader, who headed the Party of Democratic Patriots, part of the Popular Front.

"I accuse Rachid Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother," he told the AFP news agency.

The slain politician's wife also pointed her finger at the ruling Islamist party.

“I accuse Ennahda and the [Ennahda] party leader [Rachid] Ghannouchi personally of assassinating my husband,” she said. “I hold the interior minister equally responsible.”


Speaking on FRANCE 24 Wednesday morning, Alaa Talbi, a close friend of Belaid, said the politician had been threatened and “beaten up” on Sunday during a party meeting in the northwestern town of Kef.

Belaid had last week accused Ennahda "mercenaries" of attacking his supporters and on Tuesday warned that militias were being created "to terrorise citizens and drag the country into a spiral of violence."

Leading Ennahda figures have denied any involvement in the killing.

Ghannouchi, the founder of the Ennahda movement, said the killing was "cowardly" and that is was the result of a “settling of scores”. He also said that the killers intended to create "a bloodbath - but they won't succeed.”

Prime Minister Jebali also told Tunisian radio on Wednesday morning that his party had nothing to do with the assassination, which he described as “a political assassination and an assassination of the Tunisian revolution.”

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a centrist, deplored the killing in an impassioned speech at the European Parliament.

"This odious assassination of a political leader who I knew well and who was my friend... is a threat, it is a letter sent that will not be received," he said, insisting the murder would not plunge Tunisia into violence.

Violent reaction

The violent scenes triggered by Belaid's murder, in which one policeman was killed, were reminiscent of the uprising that ousted Ben Ali just over two years ago.

Belaid’s supporters flooded the streets of Tunis and other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the 2011 revolution, where tear gas was fired as about 200 people tried to storm the police headquarters.

Protesters torched the Ennahda office near Sidi Bouzid, ransacked another in Gafsa and set fire to a party office in the northeastern town of Kef.

In Kasserine, on the border with Algeria, hundreds of people called for "vengeance" as they took to the streets.

Belaid, whose funeral will be on Friday after the main weekly prayers, was a populist known for his iconic smile and black moustache.

A lawyer who spoke with the working-class accent of northwestern Tunisia, he defended human rights, was jailed under Ben Ali, and was a member of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's legal defence team.


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