Tunisian army fires warning shots during protest

Jan 20 2011 - 12:49pm

TUNIS, Tunisia -- The Tunisian army fired a barrage of warning shots in the capital Thursday as demonstrators converged on the headquarters of the longtime ruling party, which dissolved its decision-making core following a wave of departures by ministers desperate to keep their jobs.

Protesters climbed over the RCD party offices in central Tunis and dismantled the sign bearing its name, carrying off pieces of its red letters.

Demonstrators have criticized the country's new unity government for being mostly made up of old guard politicians from the RCD, which was founded by ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power.

Outside the gates of the party headquarters in Tunis, the army fired rounds into the air, scattering some protesters in the noisy but peaceful crowd. The building was being protected by an army tank in addition to numerous trucks and troops.

While police repeatedly shot at protesters in the weeks leading up to Ben Ali's ouster, killing several, the army has been playing more of a peacekeeping role since it was brought in to try to restore order last week.

Soldiers were called in to protect strategic sites and public buildings, and have been manning checkpoints around the capital, but there have been no reports of them shooting at unarmed civilians since Ben Ali left. It is unclear whether the army could emerge in a leadership role in this still unstable country.

The crowd of protesters swelled to 2,000 people Thursday, many chanting "The people want the government down!" Others waved baguettes to symbolize the need to end food shortages.

One father, Ahmad al-Ouni, brought his children aged 8 and 4 to the demonstration with a backpack of snacks and juice.

"I want them to smell their free country and to see the new Tunis without fear," al-Ouni said while his children used colored pens to draw Tunisian flags on paper.

Another demonstrator said the protests will continue until all ministers and members of parliament with links to the RCD party are removed from power.

"This revolution cannot be stolen from us and we will not tire from demonstrating, and we will come out everyday if we have to," said Mohsen Kaabi, 55, a former military officer.

The caretaker government is now struggling to calm this moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West's fight against terrorism.

In a sign of the difficulties facing the government, one minister, a former member of the ruling party, resigned Thursday, the official TAP news agency said. Zouheir M'dhaffer was a member of Ben Ali's party but was not considered close to the ousted leader. Four other ministers -- among the former outsiders named to the unity government -- resigned earlier in the week.

Members of the interim government who belonged to the longtime ruling party quit the party on Thursday, the TAP news agency said. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and interim President Fouad Mebazaa had already quit the RCD earlier in the week.

Following the resignations, the party dissolved its central committee, according to the TAP news agency. The party will continue to be run "provisionally" by its secretary general, Mohamed Ghariani, TAP said, citing a party statement.

In another attempt to ease tensions, the interim government has released all the country's political prisoners.

National television also reported that least 33 members of Ben Ali's family were taken into custody as they tried to flee the country, and prosecutors are investigating overseas bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives.

Swiss officials froze all assets tied to Ben Ali's family on Wednesday, estimating that Tunisian officials have put about $620 million into Swiss banks. In Paris, anti-corruption group Transparency International France and two other associations filed suit alleging corruption by Ben Ali and his wife.

A French government minister said the Tunisian central bank director, Taoufik Baccar, resigned following widespread rumors that the president's wife fled the country with a huge stash of gold.

Tunisia's Central Bank took control of Banque Zitouna, a bank founded by a son-in-law of Ben Ali, to protect its deposits.

 

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