KEF, Tunisia (Reuters) - Tunisian security forces fired tear gas on Thursday to disperse hundreds of people trying to storm a local government building as demonstrations broke out over the killing of seven policemen by Islamist militants.
Tensions are rising in Tunisia, where the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party and opposition have been trying to start talks to end a paralyzing deadlock since the assassination of two secular opposition leaders earlier this year.
Wednesday’s killings delayed the long-awaited negotiations to save a transition to democracy, once seen as a model for the region, nearly three years after the first Arab Spring uprising toppled Tunisian autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Clashes erupted at a government building in Kef in northern Tunisia after funerals for the officers, with enraged residents accusing Ennahda of being too lenient with hardline Islamists. Protesters attacked two local party offices of Ennahda in Kef and Beja, ransacking one and burning furniture in the street. Demonstrators took to the streets in four other cities to demand the Ennahda government resign, residents said.
“Ennahda killed my son, I will not accept consolation only after the departure of Ennahda...They are destroying our country and kill our children and want to turn Tunisia into a new Sudan,” said the mother of Socrate Charni, one of the seven slain policemen.
Divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents have widened in one of the Muslim world’s most secular countries.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh says Ennahda is ready to resign, but insists on the completion of the country’s new constitution, the establishment of an electoral commission and a clear election date before handing over power.
Talks are scheduled over the next three weeks to decide on a caretaker government and set a date for elections. But opposition leaders want Ennahda to be clearer about its intention to resign.
The government two months ago declared a local hardline Islamist movement, Ansar al-Sharia, to be a terrorist organization and began a crackdown that authorities say has led to more than 300 arrests.
Islamist violence is less common in Tunisia than in some other North African countries, where al Qaeda-associated groups have a stronger presence. But militants have grown in influence since the Arab Spring felled relatively secular authoritarian leaders who had suppressed Islamists for decades.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Mark Heinrich