Tunisia forces fight presidential guards near palace

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian special forces fought a heavy gun battle with members of the ousted president’s security force on Sunday, a military source said, and the prime minister promised to announce a new coalition government on Monday.

Fighting erupted near the presidential palace in a Tunis suburb, the source told Reuters, following other gun battles in the capital two days after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted after more than 23 years as president.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi promised rapid action to fill the power vacuum. “Tomorrow we will announce the new government which will open a new page in the history of Tunisia,” he said in a brief statement.

Three opposition leaders would take posts in the new coalition, two sources close to negotiations on building the new government told Reuters. However, the interior and foreign ministers in the old administration would keep their jobs.

The military source, who did not want to be identified, said people loyal to the arrested head of Ben Ali’s security force had opened fire as they passed near the front of the palace.

“Special military groups came out (from the palace) to pursue them and they started to exchange fire,” the source said.

Two witnesses who live near the palace, in the Carthage area several km (miles) from the center of Tunis, told Reuters by telephone they could hear heavy gunfire.

“There is firing from around the presidential palace, intensive and continuous,” said one woman. “It is a very loud noise. I think it is something more than just bullets.”

The official in charge of security for Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after a wave of rioting, is to appear in court on charges of stoking violence and threatening national security.

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State television reported earlier that two other gun battles had broken a relative calm enforced by the army in Tunis, one near the central bank building and another outside an opposition party’s headquarters about 1 km (half mile) away.

Military and police sources said security forces had killed two gunmen stationed on a rooftop near the central bank, state TV’s reporter said from the scene. A military official told the station that the two had been killed by fire from a helicopter.

Earlier, the opposition PDP party said police and troops had stopped a carload of armed men and shots had been fired outside its headquarters.

Najib Chebbi, founder of the PDP, will become regional development minister in the new government, the sources close to the negotiations said. Opposition leaders would also get the higher education and health portfolios.

Ahmed Friaa, a former academic and junior minister appointed interior minister only last week when Ben Ali fired the previous incumbent during the rioting, would stay in his job, they said.

Tanks were stationed around Tunis and soldiers were guarding public buildings. Residents, some of whom had said they were starting to get back to normal life during daylight, rebuilt makeshift barricades from branches and trash cans to block their streets and protect property as a night curfew approached.

“We came out on the streets and dressed in white vests so we can identify one another. We told the police in the neighborhood that we are here and we’re dressed in white -- it was during curfew hours ... some brought sticks and we collected rocks,” one man told Reuters Television earlier in the day.

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Many Tunisians believe Ben Ali’s family stole much of the country’s wealth, and at his nephew’s Mediterranean beachside mansion, they were taking it back on Sunday.

Crowds of people, some in family groups, filed through the villa in the resort of Hammamet, 60 km (40 miles) from the capital, to take pictures and remove what some called “souvenirs.”

Visitors helped themselves to an air conditioner, pulled up an underground sprinkler system from the lawn and tore electricity cables from the wall.

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“The people’s money went into the garden,” said one man as he held up two large decorative quartz rocks.

“It makes me sad because he (Ben Ali and his family) stole all the money to build this house from the people of Tunisia,” said Priska Nufar, who was taking a look around the mansion. “He lives in luxury and the people do not have money for food.”

On the highway heading north into Tunis, a group of youths with sticks and knives were stopping private cars and robbing them just a few kilometers from an army checkpoint, a Reuters Television crew said.


Speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, had asked Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity, and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.

Ghannouchi held talks on Sunday to fill the vacuum left when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after a month of protests over poverty, jobs and repression that claimed scores of lives.

Opposition parties wanted assurances that presidential elections would be free, that they would have enough time to campaign, that the country would move toward greater democracy and that the power of the ruling RCD party would be loosened.

Chebbi said on Saturday that elections could be held under international supervision within six or seven months.

The ousting of Tunisia’s president could embolden Arab opposition movements and citizens to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

“It was always said that the Arab world was boiling, but the continued state of stagnation made some doubt infiltrate minds. I think this doubt has now gone,” said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian commentator based in Ramallah.

Hundreds of European tourists stranded by the unrest have been flown home on emergency flights.

Police said they had caught two men with Swedish passports after one of the shooting incidents, and state television quoted a security source as saying four people carrying German passports had been detained in the same incident.

However, the Swedish news agency TT said the men were part of a Swedish group visiting Tunisia to hunt wild boar who had been attacked by a mob.

Writing by Alison Williams and David Stamp; Editing by Kevin Liffey