Tunisia rocked by clashes as general strike called

Police fire tear gas at anti-government demonstrators in Tunis on 7 February 2013. (Photo: Reuters - Anis Mili)

Published Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated 4:12pm: Police on Thursday fired tear gas at demonstrators marching in central Tunis to protest the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent opposition figure who was gunned down in broad daylight one day before.

The country's main trade union called a general strike on Friday to coincide with the funeral of Belaid, a lawyer and vocal critic of the ruling Nahda party who was shot dead outside his home by a lone gunman.

Clashes erupted between police and anti-government protesters who approached the interior ministry on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicenter of the 2011 revolution which toppled ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime.

"The people want the fall of the regime!" the protesters chanted as they headed towards the interior ministry.

Hundreds of others battled police outside the governor's office in the central Tunisian town of Gafsa.

The protesters, who were observing a symbolic funeral for the slain opposition leader, threw petrol bombs at the police, who fired large quantities of tear gas in a bid to disperse them, according to an AFP journalist.

The demonstration in Gafsa, a central mining region, was organized by the Popular Front, an alliance of leftist parties to which Belaid belonged.

Thursday's unrest follows violence the day before that left one policeman dead in Tunis and saw protesters torch and ransack offices of al-Nahda in a number of towns, including Gafsa.

Tunisian lawyers, judges and some teachers began a strike on Thursday while the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) announced on its website it had called a general strike on Friday.

Tunisia's governing Islamists meanwhile Thursday rejected a plan by their party chief and prime minister to dismiss the government after Belaid's assassination, whose death has sparked the biggest street protests since a revolution two years ago.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of al-Nahda announced late on Wednesday he would replace the government led by his Islamist party with a non-partisan cabinet until elections could be held as soon as possible.

But a senior Nahda official said Jebali had not consulted the party, suggesting the Islamist group was deeply divided over the move to replace the governing coalition and that could prolong the political crisis.

"The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party," said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Nahda's vice-president.

"We in al-Nahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government," he said.

Jebali announced he was dissolving the government on Wednesday after Belaid was gunned down, sending protesters onto the streets across the country.

"I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time," he said Wednesday, without setting a date for the reshuffling.

President Moncef Marzouki denounced the killing of Belaid, an outspoken critic of his government, as an "odious assassination."

The Nahda party, which Belaid's family accused of being behind the killing, rejected any involvement.

Nahda chief Rached Ghannouchi said that the "cowardly" murder was the result of a settling of political scores. The killers "want a bloodbath but they won't succeed," he told AFP.

The four opposition groups blamed Interior Minister Ali Laraydeh from Nahda for Belaid's murder and demanded his sacking "because he knew he was threatened and he did nothing," according to Nejib Chebbi, leader of one of the blocs.

The violent scenes triggered by Belaid's murder were reminiscent of the uprising that ousted veteran dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali just over two years ago, with thousands protesting outside the interior ministry.

Belaid's brother, Abdelmajid, bluntly accused the Nahda chief of the murder of the 48-year-old leftist leader, who headed the Party of Democratic Patriots, part of the Popular Front.

"I accuse Rached Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother," Abdelmajid told AFP.

The slain politician's wife said her husband had received daily death threats and was murdered before her eyes.

"I saw his blood flowing, I saw his little smile. I saw that they want to kill democracy," Basma Belaid told France's Europe 1 radio.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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