Thousands protest before Tunisia crisis talks

TUNIS Wed Oct 23, 2013 10:54am EDT

1 of 3. A protester shouts slogans during a demonstration calling for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition in Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in central Tunis October 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Thousands of Tunisians marched through the capital on Wednesday chanting for their government to step down, hours before ruling Islamists and opposition leaders were to start talks aimed at end months of political crisis.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda has agreed that the government it leads will resign in three weeks and make way for a non-partisan administration until new elections in the country where the "Arab Spring" revolts began in 2011.

The small North Africa country has been on edge since July when Islamist militants killed an opposition leader, sparking street rallies that threatened a democratic transition once seen as a model in an unstable region.

Ennahda has agreed to step down after the negotiations to form a temporary caretaker government, set up an electoral commission to organize a vote and decide an election date.

Waving the red and white national flag, and banners reading "No going back," and "Leave", several thousand opponents of Ennahda packed the central Avenue Habib-Bourguiba in Tunis to demand the party live up to an agreement to step down.

"There is no trust that this government will go," said Saloua Faza, a teacher carrying a large Tunisian flag. "They have never shown us any good faith."

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and party leaders say they are ready to hand over power, but they want the conditions in place for elections, including the new constitution and the formation of an electoral commission.

Nearly three years after an uprising ousted autocratic President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali Ben Ali, Tunisia's political transition has been less chaotic than those of its neighbors Egypt and Libya.

Ennahda won 40 percent in Tunisia's first post-revolt election for an assembly to draft a new constitution and it formed an interim coalition government with two secular parties.

But the process was delayed by the assassination of two opposition leaders, which enraged those who believed Ennahda was too easy on hardline Islamists, blamed for the killings, who have grown in influence since the revolution.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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