Tunisian minister talks of "conspiracy" after attacks

TUNIS Tue Feb 1, 2011 4:28pm EST

1 of 21. Soldiers stand guard near Claude Bernard primary school in downtown Tunis February 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Louafi Larbi

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's new interior minister said some members of the security forces were in a "conspiracy" to undermine the state, after a wave of violence including the burning of a synagogue and an attack on the ministry itself.

Gangs rampaged through schools in the capital on Tuesday, prompting the army to fan out to calm fears of chaos after the revolt that toppled Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali.

Major street protests have dried up in Tunisia in recent days, after a reshuffle purged the interim government of most Ben Ali loyalists and appeased public opinion.

But sporadic acts of intimidation and sabotage have broken out after weeks of protests forced Ben Ali to flee the country on January 14, ending 23 years of strict police rule.

Tunisia's new interior minister said on Tuesday some of the violence was part of an organized plot, after what he said was an attack by a 2,000-strong group on the interior ministry.

"These people who came yesterday to the ministry... are the same people who went out today to scare people," Farhat Rajhi told privately-owned Hannibal TV.

"There is a conspiracy against state security and there is a conspiracy in the security forces."

Rajhi's comments came after gangs rampaged through schools in the capital on Tuesday, terrorizing students. The army fired in the air in Carthage to disperse gangs that stormed two schools, witnesses said.

Peres Trabelsi, the spokesman for Tunisia's Jewish community, said he did not know who was behind the attack on the synagogue in the southern city of Gabes.

"I condemn this action and I believe those who did it want to create divisions between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia who have lived for decades in peace," Trabelsi said.

The last attack on a synagogue was in 2002, when al Qaeda killed 21 people on the island of Djerba.

On Monday, youths armed with knives and sticks ran through the streets of Gassrine, burning government buildings and intimidating residents, the state news agency said.

SECURITY OVERHAUL

The situation was partly aggravated by a police strike that began on Monday, but a deal was reached on Tuesday allowing security forces to set up a union to protect their rights.

Tunisia's interior ministry also replaced 34 senior security officials, a first step to overhauling the network of police, security forces and spies built up by Ben Ali over two decades.

Among those replaced were the head of national security, the head of general security and the head of presidential security, key positions under the old regime of Ben Ali.

Rajhi said he had sacked the national security chief because he had not followed orders in clearing out protesters camped outside government offices on Saturday. He questioned why no one was arrested following the attack on his own ministry on Monday.

Rajhi also said that the former interior minister who led the crackdown on the uprising that toppled Ben Ali had been arrested and was being questioned.

Several political parties as well as the country's powerful labor union, whose offices have also been attacked, urged the government to bring the security situation under control to prevent the vacuum being exploited by Ben Ali loyalists.

Gangs of youths marauding through central Tunis on Saturday were chased away by vigilante shopkeepers, armed with knives and sticks, who said they were protecting their businesses.

Some shopkeepers suggested the gangs were either loyalists of the former ruling RCD party or paid by Ben Ali to create havoc in the streets.

UN CALLS FOR SECURITY OVERHAUL

The interior minister's comments came hours after a U.N. human rights official said Tunisia's security forces must be overhauled to stop them from working against the people as they did during the uprising, in which 147 people were killed.

Bacre Waly Ndiaye, leading an eight-member team sent to Tunisia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a news conference that 510 people had been wounded during the weeks of protests that began on December 17 and inspired a massive popular uprising in Egypt.

Tunisia's interim government has promised to investigate any deaths and injuries that took place during the uprising and has begun to compensate the families affected.

The government has also promised to take back the assets held by Ben Ali and his family in Tunisia and abroad.

French authorities seized a small aircraft belonging to Ben Ali's family at an airport near Paris, the prosecutor's office said on Tuesday.

The move comes a day after the European Union agreed to freeze assets belonging to Ben Ali and his wife.

Ben Ali and his family built up interests in many Tunisian companies and industries during his two decades in power, including hotels, banks, newspapers and pharmaceutical firms.

Many of those firms are listed on the Tunisian bourse, which reopened on Monday.

(Writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by Giles Elgood and Elizabeth Fullerton)

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