TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police fired tear gas in front of parliament on Saturday to disperse secular protesters demanding the dissolution of the assembly and Islamists defending the legitimacy of their rule.
Police began firing after the arrival of thousands of opposition protesters who had been attending the funeral of the assassinated secular politician Mohamed Brahmi, a Reuters reporter said. Protesters threw stones back at police and there were several injuries.
Among those wounded was an opposition lawmaker from the same party as Brahmi.
Secular opposition parties are demanding the dissolution of the Islamist-led government and parliament, known as the constituent assembly, which has been tasked with drafting a new constitution.
“The people want to topple the regime!” and “With our blood and with our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr!” people in the crowd shouted.
“Ghannouchi, assassin, criminal,” others chanted, referring to Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party that Brahmi’s family blames for the killing.
Ghannouchi has denounced Thursday’s assassination as an attack on the country’s tumultuous process of transition from autocratic regime to democratic state.
In a counter-demonstration, hundreds of Islamists flocked in front of the parliament, chanting slogans condemning what they called an attempted coup against democracy.
The Interior Ministry issued a statement calling for calm.
“DON‘T THROW IN THE TOWEL”
The speaker of the Constituent Assembly urged lawmakers who had withdrawn from the assembly in protest to return to work at this critical juncture for completing the constitution.
“I call on them to back down from their decision. It’s not rational to throw in the towel just meters away from the finish line,” said Mustafa Ben Jaafar in a televised speech.
“The constitution will be agreed on in August and the assembly will finish its work on October 23.”
Earlier on Saturday, the secular Democratic Alliance Party withdrew 10 of its members from the 217-seat Constituent Assembly, taking the number of deputies who had withdrawn from parliament in protest against the killing of Brahmi to 52.
The death of secular opposition figure Brahmi, gunned down outside his Tunis home on Thursday, came months after another secular leader, Chokri Belaid, was killed in a similar attack that stoked violent protests.
Brahmi was buried near Belaid’s tomb at the Al Jalez cemetery in central Tunis, and mourners carried portraits of both slain politicians. The funeral was attended by Brahmi’s widow and son and several prominent politicians.
Brahmi’s death further deepened divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents that emerged after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, sparking a wave of revolutions that felled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Witnesses said one man was killed early on Saturday in an anti-government protest in the southern city of Gafsa. Violence also broke out in several other cities.
A bomb in a police car exploded in Tunis but caused no casualties, as authorities keen to maintain stability cast a nervous eye at events in Egypt where violence has spiraled since the Islamist president was ousted by the military.
Khamis Kssila of the opposition’s Nida Touns party said earlier that withdrawn parliamentarians would begin a sit-in to demand the dissolution of the assembly and formation of a national salvation government - ideas rejected by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh.
The assembly, dominated by Islamists, is in charge of drafting a new constitution for the nation of 11 million people.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou drew a direct link between the latest killing and the assassination of the Popular Front’s leader Belaid.
Aiming suspicion at a hardline Islamist, the minister said the same gun had been used in Thursday’s killing as in the Belaid attack.
“The same 9mm automatic weapon that killed Belaid also killed Brahmi,” he told a news conference, naming the main suspect as Salafist Boubacar Hakim, already being sought on suspicion of smuggling weapons from Libya.
Authorities have identified 14 Salafists suspected of involvement in Belaid’s assassination, and most were believed to be members of the local hardline Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, he said.
Tunisia’s political transition since the revolt that toppled Ben Ali has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But the government has struggled to revive the economy and has come under fire from secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of Salafi Islamists.
Additional reporting by Fatma Matoussi; Editing by David Evans and Sonya Hepinstall