Tense calm returns to Tunisia after revolt

Tunis, Jan 16 (AFP) A tense calm returned to Tunisiatoday as talks on a new government got under way after theoverthrow of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the Arabworld''s first popular revolt in recent history.

Some cafes re-opened in the centre of the capital Tunis-- the scene of violent clashes in the days running up to BenAli''s abrupt departure on Friday -- as the army continued itslockdown of the city centre.

The night in Tunis was punctuated by the crackle ofgunfire despite a strict curfew and army helicopters circledoverhead, as eyewitnesses reported people riding around inambulances and cars in the suburbs shooting up homes atrandom.

"You can''t ignore the power of disruption of thepresidential security apparatus that was headed up by generalAli Seriati. It has thousands of supporters of Ben Ali," asource said on condition of anonymity.

Tunisia''s new acting president, speaker of parliamentFoued Mebazaa, was sworn in on Saturday after Ben Ali fledwith his family to Saudi Arabia following weeks of socialprotests in cities across the North African state against hisregime.

Mebazaa said earlier that all Tunisians "withoutexception" would now be able to take part in national politicsin the once tightly-controlled country and a presidentialelection is due to be held in two months'' time.

Mebazaa called for a unity government in "the greaternational interest."

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi met with someopposition leaders yesterday and was set to hold roundtablediscussions today with all the legal political parties inTunisia on the formation of a new government.

The exiled head of the main Tunisian Islamist party,which was banned by Ben Ali, told AFP on Saturday that he nowplanned to return to his homeland.

"The Tunisian intifada has succeeded in collapsing thedictatorship," said Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahdhaparty, speaking from London.

There were chaotic scenes in and around Tunis onSaturday, with young people joyriding in stolen cars and gangslooting and setting fire to homes and shops.

The main railway station in Tunis was attacked andportraits of Ben Ali were torn down around the country. Mostof the violence appeared to target the property of Ben Ali''sfamily and his residence in Hammamet was pillaged.

Soldiers were seen dragging dozens of suspected lootersfrom their cars at gunpoint and loading them into trucks at acheckpoint outside the city.

In Monastir in central Tunisia yesterday at least 42prisoners died in a fire after one inmate set his mattressalight -- one of several attempted escape bids as inmatesapparently sought to take advantage of the chaos.

Ben Ali signed his resignation on Friday after a wave ofprotests sparked by the suicide of a 26-year-old universitygraduate who was prevented by police from selling fruit andvegetables to make a living.

Human rights groups say dozens of people were killed inthe protests, which began last month and have since escalatedinto a popular movement against unemployment, poverty and thealleged corruption of the ruling elite.

International powers including European nations and theUnited States urged calm in Tunisia and called for democracyin the southern Mediterranean country after events thatTunisian Internet users have dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution".


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