Police fire tear gas on Tunisia protesters

Tunis, Jan 18 (AP) Riot police fired tear gas at angryprotesters today as Tunisia''s prime minister defended thedecision to include members of the deeply unpopular old regimein a government shake-up aimed at quelling the country''ssimmering unrest.

Tunisia''s capital awoke to bustling, everyday lifefor the first time since its ousted president fled the countrylast week, but the peace quickly ended downtown as policelobbed tear gas to scatter about 200 protesters marchingtoward the Interior Ministry - many in the crowd coughing,sputtering and tearing up. Helicopters circled overhead.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi claimed that hisannouncement yesterday to include ministers from iron-fistedPresident Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali''s old guard in a new unitygovernment was a necessary step "because we need them in thisphase".

Tunisia has entered "an era of liberty," Ghannouchisaid in an interview with France''s Europe-1 radio posted onits website. "Give us a chance so that we can put in placethis ambitious programme of reform".

He insisted the ministers chosen "have clean hands,in addition to great competence," suggesting that experiencedofficials are needed along with opposition leaders in acaretaker government to guide the country before freeelections are held in coming months.

Ghannouchi pledged to free political prisoners andlift restrictions on a leading human rights group, theTunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. He said thegovernment would create three state commissions to studypolitical reform, investigate corruption and bribery, andexamine abuses during the recent upheaval.

The country has suffered riots, looting and anapparent settling-of-scores after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabiaon Friday, as public protests spread over years of staterepression, corruption, and a shortage of jobs for manyeducated young adults. The government announced that 78civilians have died in the month of unrest.

The protests that forced out Ben Ali began lastmonth after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man sethimself on fire when police confiscated the fruit andvegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate acthit a nerve, sparking copycat suicides and focused angeragainst the regime into a widespread revolt.

Reports of self-immolations surfaced in Egypt,Mauritania and Algeria yesterday, in apparent imitation of theTunisian events.

The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who hadtaken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warningto other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. HisMediterranean nation, an ally in the US fight againstterrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its widebeaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stablethan many in the region. (AP)

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