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PM names unity government to quell Tunisia unrest

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s prime minister appointed opposition figures to a new unity government on Monday in the hope of restoring stability after violent street protests brought down the president last week.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi also said the government was committed to releasing all political prisoners and would investigate anyone with great wealth or suspected of corruption.

Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa told state television at least 78 people had been killed in the unrest, and the cost so far in damage and lost business was 3 billion dinars ($2 billion).

The protest wave against unemployment, graft and repression that unseated President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has hit stock and currency markets from Jordan to Morocco, and investors were waiting to see whether Tunisians accepted the unity government -- and if unrest spreads abroad.

Before the unity government was announced, about 1,000 people demonstrated in the capital Tunis, some saying they would not accept members of the ruling RCD party prominent in the new coalition because they would block needed reforms.

Security forces used water cannon and tear gas and fired shots in the air to disperse the protesters.

Ghannouchi is a member of the RCD, previously led by Ben Ali, and the party retains a significant presence in the new government.

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The prime minister said opposition leaders would have cabinet posts, but the ministers of defense, interior, finance and foreign affairs would keep their jobs in the new government.

Among opposition figures he named Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) as minister of regional development, Ettajdid party leader Ahmed Ibrahim higher education minister and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labor, health minister.

“We are committed to intensifying our efforts to re-establish calm and peace in the hearts of all Tunisians. Our priority is security, as well as political and economic reform,” Ghannouchi told a news conference.


In the capital, ordinary Tunisians were skeptical.

“We do not trust this government because there are the same faces, like Ghannouchi ... and particularly Friaa,” said passerby Mohamed Mishrgi. “It’s as if Ben Ali’s system is still there. It’s for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing in Tunis. We want a new state with new people.” Another passerby, Hosni Saidani, added: “It is difficult to trust these people because they participated in Ben Ali’s system but they did not have the courage to say to him, ‘Stop.’ So how can they make a change toward democracy?” A British minister also called for more reforms and greater political freedom in Tunisia.

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The profound change in Tunisia in the past few days “is not yet the political reform that many people in that country hope for,” Foreign Office minister David Lidington told parliament.

Britain wanted “an orderly move toward free and fair elections and an expansion of political freedom in Tunisia,” he said during a debate.

In Washington, the White House said it welcomed the reforms announced by Ghannouchi, along with the commitment to investigate corruption, promote free media and free political prisoners.

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“We expect the Tunisian government to ensure these universal rights, follow through on these stated reforms and hold free and fair elections in order to fulfill the aspirations of the Tunisian people,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.

Tunisia’s 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.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after weeks of street unrest. His sudden departure sent shock waves through the Arab world, where autocratic leaders preside over similarly repressive governments.

A senior central bank official, Habib Maalej, denied reports that the ex-president’s family had taken 1.5 tons of gold worth $66 million out of the country.

“... The gold reserves in Tunisia are very well preserved and not one ounce was brought out,” Maalej said in a telephone interview with the African Manager website.

Tanks and soldiers were stationed on the streets of Tunis on Monday after clashes overnight between special forces and Ben Ali’s security men, and the U.S. embassy said it would evacuate family members of its staff to Rabat on Tuesday.

The event that set off Tunisia’s unrest -- a man set himself on fire after police seized his vegetable cart -- seemed to have spurred copycat burnings. Four men were reported to have set fire to themselves in Algeria and one each in Egypt and Mauritania.

Additional reporting by Mohamed Argoubi; Writing by Tim Pearce; editing by Mark Heinrich