Monday, January 17, 2011
By Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe
TUNIS: Tunisian authorities struggled to restore order Sunday, arresting the top presidential security chief and fighting a heavy gun battle with members of the ousted president’s security force Sunday, as the premier promised a new government would be announced Monday.
Fighting erupted near the presidential palace in a Tunis suburb in the evening, the source told Reuters, following other gun battles in the capital two days after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted after more than 23 years as president.
However, Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi promised rapid action to fill the power vacuum. “Tomorrow [Monday] we will announce the new government which will open a new page in the history of Tunisia,” Ghannouchi said in a brief statement.
Parliament Speaker Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, had asked Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity, and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.
Ghannouchi held talks Sunday to fill the vacuum left when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after a month of protests over poverty, jobs and repression that claimed scores of lives.
Opposition parties wanted assurances that presidential elections would be free, that they would have enough time to campaign, that the country would move toward greater democracy and that the power of the ruling R.C.D. party would be loosened.
Opposition leader Najib Chebbi said after talks with Ghannouchi Saturday that elections could be held under international supervision within six or seven months.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. was “encouraged” by the vows of Tunisia’s premier and interim president to usher in a new era of “truly representative government.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abou al-Gheit downplayed Sunday prospects of the revolt spreading to other Arab countries, calling it “nonsense.”
The military source, who did not want to be identified, said people loyal to the arrested head of Ben Ali’s security force had opened fire as they passed near the front of the palace.
“Special military groups came out [from the palace] to pursue them and they started to exchange fire,” the source said.
The security chief, Ali Seriati, and his deputy were charged with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for “provoking disorder, murder and pillaging,” the Tap state news agency reported. Al-Jazeera television said a replacement had been appointed.
The clashes suggested a worsening of violence following drive-by shootings and jailbreaks Saturday in which scores of inmates were killed.
State television reported earlier that two other gun battles had broken a relative calm enforced by the army in Tunis, one near the Central Bank building and another outside an opposition party’s headquarters about 1 kilometer away.
Military and police sources said security forces had killed two gunmen stationed on a rooftop near the central bank, state TV’s reporter said from the scene. A military official told the station that the two had been killed by fire from a helicopter. Earlier, the opposition P.D.P. party said police and troops had stopped a carload of armed men and shots had been fired outside its headquarters.
Tanks were stationed around Tunis and soldiers were guarding public buildings. Residents, some of whom had said they were starting to get back to normal life during daylight, rebuilt makeshift barricades from branches and trash cans to block their streets and protect property as a night curfew approached.
Sunday was not a working day but some people were shopping for food. For the first time in days, a few vans and pick-up trucks were making deliveries. On the highway heading north into Tunis, a group of youths with sticks and knives were stopping private cars and robbing them just a few kilometers from an army checkpoint, a Reuters Television crew said.
Showing their contempt for Ben Ali’s family, several hundred people filed through the empty, ransacked home of the former president’s nephew, Kaif Ben Ali, taking photographs, picking up plants as souvenirs and stripping out plumbing fixtures. The villa is in the chic Mediterranean resort of Hammamet, about 60 kilometers from the capital.
Police said they had caught two men with Swedish passports after one of the shooting incidents, and state television quoted a security source as saying four people carrying German passports had been detained in the same incident.
But the Swedish news agency TT said the men were part of a Swedish group visiting Tunisia to hunt wild boar who had been attacked by a mob. – With A.P.