Tunisia government to lift political ban, police fire shots

TUNIS Thu Jan 20, 2011 2:49pm EST

1 of 29. A Tunisian protester grabs hold of a soldier's leg for safety as shots are fired in the air in front of the headquarters of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration, in downtown Tunis January 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's new government, faced with violent street protests for retaining members of the deposed president's cabinet, offered a blanket amnesty to all political groups including the banned Islamist opposition.

The pledge came in the ruling coalition's first cabinet meeting. Protesters have complained that despite a promised amnesty, only a few hundred of those imprisoned for political reasons during the 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had been released.

"We are in agreement for a general amnesty," said Higher Education Minister Ahmed Ibrahim, an opposition party leader who joined the coalition after Ben Ali's ouster. [nLDE70J27X]

Asked if the amnesty would include people jailed for membership of Ennahda, an opposition Islamist movement that was repressed by Ben Ali's security services, Ibrahim told Reuters: "Yes, of course, everybody will be part of this amnesty."

The announcement followed another day of protests, with police firing shots into the air to try to disperse hundreds of demonstrators demanding that ministers associated with the rule of Ben Ali leave the government.

The protesters, who gathered outside the Tunis headquarters of the RCD, Tunisia's ruling party for several decades, refused to move back when police fired shots from behind a metal fence.

There were also protests in other towns across Tunisia.

Protesters on Mohamed V Avenue near the center of Tunis chanted: "After Ben Ali and his wife, we want to bring down his thieves!" They also burned the logo of the party and carried banners saying: "Government out!"

One of the protesters, who gave his name as Aymen, said: "We are here, we are not going to move until the RCD falls. We will come every hour and every day."

At the RCD headquarters, workmen were removing the large plaque from the outside of the building bearing the party's name, a Reuters reporter said.

A military officer guarding the building told the crowd: "Translate this as you wish: the RCD is going away."

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after weeks of unrest spurred by anger over poverty, unemployment and repression. The first popular revolt in generations to topple an Arab leader, his downfall sent shockwaves through the Arab world.

MINISTER QUIT PARTY

The prime minister and caretaker president are both veteran former RCD members who quit the party this week. Protesters in Tunis and other cities have kept up pressure for a government free of ties with Ben Ali and the old guard.

Other ministers in the interim government have also resigned from the RCD party in a bid to restore credibility after four opposition ministers quit the cabinet in protest.

A junior minister seen as tied to the former administration stepped down on Thursday.

"I am stepping down for the higher interests of the country in this delicate situation to try to bring the country out of crisis and ensure a democratic transition," Zouheir M'Dhaffar, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's office, was quoted as saying by the official TAP news agency.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people gathered in the town of Gafsa, 350 km (220 miles) south of Tunis, to protest the presence in the government of ministers who worked for Ben Ali, union activist Hedi Radaoui told Reuters.

State television said there was also an anti-government protest in the town of Kef, about 180 km southwest of Tunis. There were also protests in Sfax.

Shooting and looting on the streets have declined in recent days but a resident in the Mouroudj neighborhood, 5 km from Tunis city center, said police and the military intervened on Wednesday night after gunmen began shooting.

Helicopters flew overhead and security forces told people to stay indoors, the resident said.

With police lacking public credibility after playing a role in cracking down on unrest before Ben Ali's departure, the interim government is dependent on the army to maintain order.

The military has, in public at least, stayed out of politics but some analysts say it wields influence behind the scenes.

At the Borj Lamary prison, just outside Tunis, a bus emerged carrying inmates released under a government order to free all political prisoners.

Among those freed was Sameer Hagouba, who said he had been studying at the Islamic Al Azhar University in Egypt when he was deported on terrorism-related charges and imprisoned in his native Tunisia.

"Does this look like the face of terrorism?" asked Hagouba, a young man with a light and carefully trimmed beard. "We call now for all political prisoners to be released..."

Authorities say they have seized some assets from Ben Ali's family. State TV said a bank owned by Ben Ali's son-in-law had been placed under the control of the central bank.

Tunisia's central bank on Thursday moved to reassure international creditors, saying it held enough foreign currency reserves to meet financial and commercial obligations.

It said it held 12.6 billion dinars ($8.8 billion) in foreign reserves, enough to cover 143 days of import needs.

(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara, Abdelaziz Boumzar and Antonio Denti; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Jason Neely)

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