Tunisian minister resigns, pressure on government grows

TUNIS Wed Jul 31, 2013 11:00am EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian Education Minister Salem Labyedh has resigned, the prime minister's spokesman said on Wednesday, as pressure mounted on the Islamist-led government to step down.

Protests against the moderate Islamist Ennahda party intensified after last week's killing of a leftist politician, the second to be slain in six months, disrupting a political transition that began when Tunisians toppled an autocratic leader in 2011.

Opposition parties, the largest labor union and the secular Ettakatol party, the ruling Ennahda party's junior coalition partner, have all demanded the government's departure.

Labyedh, a secular independent, had said he was considering resigning after fellow leftist Mohamed Brahmi was shot dead on Thursday in an assassination the government has pinned on hardline Salafi Islamists. The opposition blames Ennahda.

The minister of culture, Mehdi Mabrouk, also told local media he was hoping to convince all ministers to resign.

"I hope to see the resignation of all members of the government in the coming days," he told the local Shems radio station. "I hope these will be the last days I spend as the minister of culture."

While politicians feud, the army is struggling to contain Islamist militants, who killed eight soldiers on Monday in a mountainous region near the Algerian border in one of the bloodiest attacks on Tunisian troops in decades.

A small roadside bomb exploded on Wednesday south of the capital as a police patrol passed, but no injuries or damage were reported. Last Saturday, the day of Brahmi's funeral, the capital Tunis was hit by its first car bomb, but again no one was hurt.

"We are facing two choices. Either we confront terrorism together, or we will distract the army and security forces with political battles that are much less dangerous than terrorism," Noureddine Bhiri, the prime minister's spokesman, told a news conference.

Ennahda has softened its rejection of opposition demands in the face of increasing pressure.

It said on Tuesday it was open to the possibility of a new government, but has firmly rejected the opposition's demands that the transitional Constituent Assembly also be disbanded.

The body is just weeks away from completing a draft of a new constitution to be put to a popular referendum.

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh will meet the head of the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union on Thursday to discuss the political crisis and a new initiative to deal with the situation, the prime minister's office said.

The 600,000-strong union is calling for a compromise that would remove the current government and put a technocratic government in place, but would not dissolve the Assembly.

(Additional reporting and writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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