Tunisian "day of rage" takes aim at premier

TUNIS Fri Feb 25, 2011 2:08pm EST

1 of 3. A protester shouts slogans during a demonstration against the Tunisian government, in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis February 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian soldiers fired shots into the air on Friday in a vain attempt to disperse tens of thousands of protesters in central Tunis demanding changes to the interim government, some burning tires and throwing rocks.

The rally, dubbed by the demonstrators a "day of rage," appeared to be the biggest since uprisings in North Africa's most developed country ended the 23-year rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and sparked pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.

Demonstrators shouted slogans calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a former ally of Ben Ali, from the interim government. Some protesters carried images of Ghannouchi's face merging seamlessly into that of the Ben Ali's, shouting "shame on the government!"

"The only demand we have is the end of this government," said Alia Soussi, a 22-year-old student joining the protest. "We hope Ghannouchi gets the message."

The interim government charged with organizing elections has already undergone several changes after street protests, but Ghannouchi, seen by some as an asset for his familiarity with the country's affairs, has remained.

He was prime minister for more than a decade under Ben Ali's rule, which Tunisians saw as oppressive and corrupt.

Witnesses said protesters burned tires and threw rocks through the windows of the Interior Ministry building -- long a symbol of repression under Ben Ali's more than 20-year rule.

A source at the Interior Ministry told Reuters that protesters were also destroying cars parked outside.

Military helicopters circled over the rally, which had formed in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations since Ben Ali's ouster. The protesters remained in place despite security forces firing warning shots in the air, and there was no evidence of injuries.

Earlier on Friday, demonstrators protested in Tunis against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's bloody crackdown on an uprising that was inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Gaddafi loyalists have killed hundreds of protesters in the North African oil exporter country and thousands of people -- including large numbers of Tunisian and Egyptian migrants -- have been streaming across Tunisia's border to escape.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Richard Valdmanis, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

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