Tunis, Jan 16 (AFP) Tunisia''s acting leaders lookedinto political reforms today following the abrupt end offormer strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali''s 23-year rule, asthe Arab state veered towards chaos.
Soldiers and tanks were deployed around the capitalTunis after shops and homes were looted extensively andvandals set fire to the main railway station.
The crackle of gunfire echoed yesterday in the largelydeserted streets of the city centre, which was sealed off bysecurity forces to prevent protests.
Tunisia has been under a state of emergency sinceFriday, with public gatherings banned and a strictdusk-to-dawn curfew in force.
After being formally sworn into office to take overfrom Ben Ali, the 78-year-old speaker of parliament FouedMebazaa said that all Tunisians "without exception" would nowbe able to take part in national politics.
"A unity government is necessary in the greaternational interest," Mebazaa said as the Constitutional Councildeclared that a presidential election should be held in twomonths'' time.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who hadinitially said he would be caretaker leader, started to soundout political parties and other groupings on an open politicalsystem aimed at breaking with that of Ben Ali.
On Saturday afternoon a number of well-known figuresfiled into the prime minister''s office, where they werereceived separately, according to Mustapha Ben Jaffar, head ofthe Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms.
"The discussions revolved around measures to lay thebasis for a real democratic process and turn the page on afailed system," Ben Jaffar told AFP.
Ghannouchi was to meet today these players to discussthe composition of a government of national unity and holdingelections under international supervision.
Ben Ali''s party would not be left out of the process,Ben Jaffar added.
The exiled head of the main Tunisian Islamist party,which was banned by Ben Ali, told AFP that he now planned toreturn 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 Tunisyesterday: luxury cars were seen smashed and abandoned nearthe city and shops and homes had been pillaged and burnt.
The violence appeared to target the property of BenAli''s family in particular.
In Monastir in central Tunisia at least 42 prisonerswere killed in a fire after an inmate set his mattress alight-- one of several attempted escape bids as prisonersapparently sought to take advantage of the chaos.
Imed Trabelsi, nephew of Ben Ali''s powerful wifeLeila, died of a knife wound in the capital''s militaryhospital, a staff member told AFP Saturday. (AFP)