TUNIS Protesters demanded the immediate resignation of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Friday despite the veteran ruler's promise to step aside in 2014 in a bid to end the worst unrest of his rule.
At least 5,000 people demonstrated outside the interior ministry chanting "Ben Ali, leave!" and "Ben Ali, thank you but that's enough!," a Reuters reporter said.
The rally came hours after the 74-year-old president announced in a television address that he would not seek a sixth term.
In power since 1987, Ben Ali made sweeping concessions on Thursday evening, saying security forces would no longer use live ammunition against protesters and promising freedom of the press and an end to Internet censorship. He also said the prices of sugar, milk and bread would be cut.
His foreign minister said on Friday that Tunisia may form a national unity government and hold early parliamentary elections after what he called Ben Ali's "clear and sharp correction."
But demonstrations continued on Friday in Sidi Bouzid, the central town where protests against unemployment and poverty began a month ago, with several thousand marchers demanding that Ben Ali go immediately, several witnesses said.
"There are thousands of us here, we have come out in our thousands to say: 'Ben Ali, go away!'" trade union activist Sliman Rouissi told Reuters by telephone.
The UGTT trade union confederation had called for a general strike, which analysts said would be a first test of whether the president had managed to calm public anger with his speech.
Tunisia's main share index rose 1.65 percent in early trading on Friday, ending four days of losses which dragged it to its lowest level in 12 months. But the cost of insuring Tunisian debt against default was virtually unchanged from Thursday's 18-month high.
Ben Ali, only the second head of state Tunisia has ever had and in office for over 23 years, set his departure date in an emotional speech made after weeks of deadly clashes between protesters and police.
The government puts the death toll at 23 but the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said it has the names of 66 people killed.
Many of those involved in the protests said they were fed up with unemployment, a lack of liberty and the huge wealth of a tiny elite under Ben Ali, and they were expecting that he would try to extend his rule for another, sixth term.
But Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane told Europe 1 radio that Ben Ali had acknowledged errors and was a man of his word.
"He said there would be no more holding of presidential and legislative elections in parallel. In so doing, he accepted the principle of (legislative) elections before the presidential poll in 2014," the minister said.
Asked about the possibility of forming a coalition government including opposition leaders such as Najib Chebbi, he said: "I think that is feasible and I think it would be entirely normal."
In the Lafayette district in the center of Tunis, where a few hours earlier police had shot and wounded protesters, hundreds of people ignored a curfew on Thursday evening and poured into the streets after Ben Ali's speech ended.
"We are happy because he spoke the language of the people. We hope that all the bad memories will be left in the past and we will have only freedom," said Ramzi Ben Kraim, a 22-year-old student.
Soon after the presidential address, Internet sites which had been blocked for weeks, including YouTube and Dailymotion, started working.
There is no obvious candidate to succeed Ben Ali, who had dominated political life in Tunisia and sidelined rivals since he seized power in 1987, declaring independence leader Habib Bourguiba medically unfit to remain president.
Ben Ali appeared on television at the end of a day when the unrest appeared to be slipping out of his government's control.
Protesters fought running battles with police in the center of the city of the first time, and witnesses said youths ransacked upmarket shops in the chic holiday resort of Hammamet, where Ben Ali has one of his residences.
Ratcheting up the international pressure, former colonial power France for the first time criticized Ben Ali's handling of the protests and several countries, including the United States, advised citizens to stay away, threatening the tourism trade which is Tunisia's economic lifeblood.
Ben Ali was contrite and appeared close to tears at times during his televised address. He spoke for the first time in the local dialect instead of using classical Arabic.
"I have been deceived, they deceived me," he said, in a reference to senior officials. "I am not the sun which shines over everything," he said.
"I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands. I am sad about what is happening now after 50 years of service to the country, military service, all the different posts, 23 years of the presidency."
Chebbi, one of Ben Ali's most outspoken opponents inside the country and the man Western diplomats view as the most credible figure in the opposition, said the president had done the right thing.
"But what remains (to be seen) is how will this be carried out and I ask that a coalition government be created," he said. "The new policy in the speech was good and we await the concrete details.
Tunisia's protests have been watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest, especially after rises in world food prices.
Tunisian officials said violent extremists bent on destruction had hijacked the protests, and that police had been left with no option to fire at them in self-defense. There were no reports of any police killed.