Tunisia seeks arrest of ousted president, family

TUNIS Wed Jan 26, 2011 4:43pm EST

A protester chants slogans as he holds a riot police shield during clashes with the police near government offices in the Casbah, the old city of Tunis, January 26, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

A protester chants slogans as he holds a riot police shield during clashes with the police near government offices in the Casbah, the old city of Tunis, January 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia has asked Interpol to help find and arrest ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and promised a reshuffle which is likely to remove some of his loyalists in an effort to end persistent protests.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 when weeks of violent protests against poverty, repression and corruption toppled him after 23 years in power.

Protesters have been demanding for days that the makeshift coalition government be purged of Ben Ali's allies, and demonstrators clashed with police again on Wednesday.

The uprising has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries face similar problems.

The French-based international police organisation said it had issued a global alert to seek the location and arrest of Ben Ali and six of his relatives.

In Tunis, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said the interim government wanted to bring to justice Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members so they can be tried for theft and currency offences.

"We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman, for trial in Tunisia," he said.

Under this type of alert, Interpol said it had requested member countries to locate and provisionally arrest the suspects with a view to their extradition to Tunis.

"Interpol does not send officials to carry out arrests; these are made by national law enforcement officials in line with their national laws," it said in a statement.

Chebbi said that six members of the presidential guard would be put on trial for inciting violence after Ben Ali's departure.

Inspired by Tunisia's example, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, clashing with police who fired tear gas and used water cannon.

Tunisia's interim government has struggled to assert itself in the face of protesters' demands to sack Ben Ali allies and said it would announce a cabinet reshuffle on Thursday.

Political sources said the interior, defence and foreign ministers were to be replaced.

"The reshuffle will be announced tomorrow, Thursday," government spokesman Taieb Bakouch was quoted as saying on the Tunisian state news agency.

RULING PARTY

Despite the clashes, the interim government announced it would reduce the curfew, in place since the revolt, by several hours, effective from Wednesday night.

Clashes broke out near government offices in the old city, or casbah, where riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators, mainly teenagers and young men, who threw stones.

The protesters appeared to be Tunisians from the rural hinterland who have been camping out at the government compound.

They shouted at the security forces that they were the "police of Leila," a reference to Ben Ali's unpopular wife, who was seen as having excessive influence and lavish tastes.

The Tunisian General Labour Union announced a general strike on Wednesday in Sfax, Tunisia's second city and economic centre, where thousands of protesters demanded the government resign.

In Tunis, protesters managed to get into the building where the justice minister was speaking and crowded around him to petition him about relatives who are still in prison.

During his 23 years in power, Ben Ali amassed vast riches and his family controlled many of Tunisia's biggest companies.

In Switzerland, a government spokesman said funds worth tens of millions of Swiss francs had been reported by banks and financial institutions since the government froze all assets belonging to Ben Ali and his entourage.

He said the interim government had filed a request for Swiss legal assistance on Tuesday. Such a request kicks off the process of reclaiming any money illegally stashed away in the Alpine country.

The European Union said Brussels was ready to help Tunisia's interim government fight corruption and prepare for elections.

"The EU is also willing to adopt, in close coordination with the Tunisian authorities, restrictive measures against those responsible for diverting public funds," it said in a statement.

Chebbi said that, in the disorder that followed the fall of Ben Ali, some 11,000 prisoners had escaped from Tunisian jails, about one third of the total jail population.

On January 15, the day after Ben Ali fled, dozens of inmates were reported to have been killed in a mass breakout from a prison in the town of Mahdia. The same day, 42 inmates were killed in a prison riot in Monastir in what was described by a hospital official as "complete chaos."

Chebbi said 2,460 prisoners had been released since Ben Ali fell. It was not clear how many of them had been in jail for political crimes, but the government said earlier it was releasing all political prisoners.

(Writing by Giles Elgood and Maria Golovnina)