TUNIS // Tunisia's government has asked Saudi Arabia whether its exiled former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is dead, and demanded his extradition if he is still alive, as thousands of people protested in the capital calling for the caretaker government to resign.
Mr Ben Ali, 74, fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after a massive popular uprising ended his 23-year rule.
Tunisia's foreign ministry said in a statement on Sunday that it had asked Saudi Arabia to provide information "as soon as possible" whether the ousted president's health has deteriorated or about "the possibility of his death" in the wake of news reports on the matter in recent days.
The statement, reported by the official news agency TAP, also asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Mr Ben Ali following "new charges against the ousted president for his implication in severe crimes."
Those charges included an alleged role that Mr Ben Ali played in "the commissioning of and incitement to murder and the provocation of discord among the people in driving them to kill one another", TAP reported.
A United Nations mission said at least 219 people were killed, including dozens who died in prison fires, in the weeks of unrest leading up to Mr Ben Ali's escape. A women's group said in a report that security forces raped, tortured and robbed people during the uprising.
The new charges come on top of claims by investigators looking into allegations that Mr Ben Ali and his family held bank accounts and property in several countries for the purposes of laundering money they obtained illegally.
The call for extradition comes a day after state television jolted many Tunisians with a report showing investigators unearthing what they claimed were troves of jewels, cash and other riches in a safe tucked behind a bookshelf in a former Ben Ali palace.
The television report showed investigators poring over tightly wrapped stacks of dollars, euros and other foreign currencies, and showcased an array of diamond and emerald-studded necklaces and other jewellery in wooden cases at the palace, which is located in the posh Tunis suburb of Sidi Bousaid.
The report said the find is a result of an investigation led by Abdelfattah Amor, a Tunisian law professor, into alleged corruption and other abuses of the Ben Ali regime.
Mr Amor said that the value of the "fortune" would be determined by the members of his investigative panel; the cash and jewels are being kept in Tunisia's central bank.
"After the legal procedures, it will have to be returned to the Tunisian people," he said.
Also on Sunday, several thousand protesters assembled at the governmental palace to demand the departure of the provisional government headed by the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, a long-time ally of Mr Ben Ali.
Mr Ghannouchi has said he would leave power after shepherding Tunisia through the transition period towards democracy, which would include elections.
Police fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.