TUNIS // A Tunisian opposition party leader claimed yesterday that one of its members was the victim of a calculated assassination carried out by the ruling Islamist party.
Lotfi Nakdh from the secular Call to Tunisia party was killed during violent clashes in the southern city of Tataouine on Thursday.
Although the cause of death is unconfirmed, the force of the response from the opposition highlights deepening political divides in Tunisia and pitches the embattled government further into a struggle between some of its Islamist supporters, secularists and those seen as remnants of the regime deposed by the revolution last year.
"I give my condolences to Ennahda because they have just killed someone from Tunisia, and there is nothing worse than death and killing," thundered Beiji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the Call for Tunisia opposition party, and former prime minister, at a press conference.
Doctors have not yet released results of an autopsy on Nakdh, a father of six who had applied to be the regional representative of the Call for Tunisia party.
An Ennahda Party spokesman said yesterday that the man died of a heart attack, which Mr Essebsi called a lie.
Mr Essebsi's accusations against Ennahda come ahead of the first anniversary of the election of a governing body that had aimed to write a constitution and hold an election within a year.
Instead, there are frequent demonstrations and strikes over controversial clauses in the half-written draft constitution, and political divisions, especially between Islamist and secular groupings, seem to be ever more bitter.
"Lotfi Nakdh is the first political assassination in the political struggle of Tunisia," said Mr Essebsi at the conference.
The tensions in Tataouine stem from political differences between Islamist-leaning people and members of the former ruling RCD party, the political party of deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, say residents.
According to eyewitnesses, the demonstration on Thursday began when a group of about two dozen Ennahda supporters gathered outside the agricultural union. The situation then became violent as rival factions hurled Molotov cocktails and beat each other with sticks.
Video footage from the scene shown at the press conference showed dozens more people gathering in the streets of the small town, some of them shouting slogans against the RCD. Call for Tunisia, as well as some parts of the union movement, are condemned by some Tunisians, who call for a "purification" of government institutions from officials from the former regime.
"This kind of violence is new, but there was always tension between the RCD and Islamists, it's something that appeared after the revolution," said Mohammed Bakkai, 37, who did not participate in the demonstration but went to investigate the chaos.
"Some of the old RCD officials had to hide in their houses after the revolution," he added, because they had been threatened by Islamists.
He said that both sides were responsible for the violence.
This latest flare-up in tensions between Call for Tunisia and Ennahda comes after Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, labelled the opposition group "more dangerous than the Salafists", the religious extremists who have rocked Tunisia with violent protests in recent months, saying that the group uses the old networks of the ruling party to build its support.
Mr Essebsi responded furiously to this claim at yesterday's press conference.
"We are now witnessing a new era of violence because the ruling party is out of excuses and arguments," he said.