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Rural poor rally in Tunis, seeking change

TUNIS (Reuters) - Protesters from Tunisia’s poor rural heartlands demonstrated in the capital on Sunday, demanding that the revolution they started should now sweep the remnants of the fallen president’s old guard from power.

A week after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took the reins of an interim coalition following the overthrow of veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, he and other former loyalists of the feared ruling party face mounting pressure to step down.

Quite what shape an eventual popular leadership might take is unclear. Formal opposition parties exist but are not well known after decades of oppression. A hitherto banned Islamist party has called for early elections and may find ready support.

For days, protesters have gathered at the premier’s office, limited in numbers but tolerated by police anxious for their own futures after Ben Ali. The demonstrators enjoy wider support among a population unused to free political expression.

On Sunday, amid a weekend calm, hundreds of people who had been driven to the capital in a “freedom caravan” surrounded Ghannouchi’s building in central Tunis. Many were from Sidi Bouzid, the bleak central city where the “Jasmine Revolution” was sparked a month ago by one despairing young man’s suicide.

“We are marginalized. Our land is owned by the government. We have nothing,” said Mahfouzi Chouki from near the city, which lies 300 km (200 miles) south of Tunis and a world away from the opulent coastal resorts favored by Ben Ali’s elite.

Some new arrivals brought food and bedding. They planned to defy a curfew to camp out and press home their demands.

“We came from Sidi Bouzid, from Kairouan, from Gefsa ... to bring our voice to the capital,” said one man, Safi Adel.

Demonstrators said they would not let the legacy of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in protest at poverty and oppression, end with Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia and the establishment of a government dominated by his lieutenants.

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“The people want this government to fall,” they chanted.

CRIMES

In an emotional interview on state TV on Friday, Ghannouchi said he intended to retire from politics after organising elections. But despite signs many Tunisians would like a return to calm, his words have failed to stem calls for him to go now.

Ghannouchi has sought to distance himself from the former leader. He vowed to track him down and promised compensation for the families of victims of human rights abuses.

On Sunday, the state news agency said Abdelaziz bin Dhia, Ben Ali’s spokesman and chief adviser, and Abdallah Qallal, the speaker of parliament’s upper house, were under house arrest.

Held for “treason” was Larbi Nasra, a relative of Ben Ali whose private TV station was accused of promoting his return.

“The owner of Hannibal TV ... is using the channel to abort the youth’s revolution, spread confusion, incite strife and broadcast false information,” a statement citing an authorized source said. “The aim is to create a constitutional vacuum, ruin stability and take the country into a vortex of violence that will bring back the dictatorship of the former president.”

Tunisian journalists and rights activists were uneasy about the arrest, which they said smacked of the kinds of measures taken by the old regime and raised fears that the freedom the media has gained in the past week could be taken back.

Slideshow ( 31 images )

The government says it is hunting public property believed stolen by the former president’s clan, both at home and abroad.

A former minister told state television he had overseen -- under pressure -- transfers of public land to relatives of Ben Ali but added: “I didn’t know this ruling family stole so much.”

Officials said on Saturday they would investigate the interior ministry’s role in the deaths of protesters and revise laws to prevent the rise of another strongman. Police themselves demonstrated in Tunis on Saturday to declare their innocence of crimes against the people and to portray themselves as victims.

Some protesters who gathered outside the prime minister’s office on Sunday, rejected what they said were police efforts to co-opt the revolt after beating and opening fire on crowds.

Slideshow ( 31 images )

“I WANT JUSTICE”

Amin Kahli, also from the Sidi Bouzid region, said he was honoring the memory not only of Bouazizi but dozens of others who died when demonstrators took on Ben Ali’s armed police.

“My brother was leaving home for work when a sniper shot him in the chest,” Kahli said. “He was only 21. I want justice for him and I want this government to fall.”

Former members of Ben Ali’s RCD ruling party retain key ministries, notably interior, defense and foreign affairs.

The Tunisians’ revolt has electrified millions across the Arab world who suffer similarly from high unemployment, rising prices and corrupt rule, often by leaders backed by Western powers as a bulwark against radical Islam. Arab governments have responded to recent protests with concessions -- and police repression.

In Yemen, the poorest Arab state, hundreds of students demonstrated on Sunday after the arrest of a woman who had led previous protests demanding a Tunisian-style uprising.

Among worrying signs for authoritarian rulers has been the way new technologies and social networks appeared to galvanize diffuse popular rage into a movement capable of overthrowing what was one of the region’s most durable police states.

An exile blogger who won fame for his lampoons of Ben Ali returned to Tunisia from Canada on Sunday to a cheering welcome from hundreds of young fans, some of whom urged him to run for president. “The internet ... was the basic motor in getting rid of the tyrant,” the blogger, Tarek Mekki, told Reuters.

Sunday was the last of three days of national mourning. The government has said schools would begin reopening from Monday.

Additional reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Ralph Boulton

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