TUNIS // A leading Tunisian Islamist, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned home today from 22 years in exile, witnesses said, with thousands turning out to greet him at the airport.
His return is seen as the most powerful symbol to date of the change that has swept Tunisia since its president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled by popular protests this month.
The reception for Mr Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, at Tunis airport was the biggest showing by the Islamists in two decades, during which thousands of them were jailed or exiled by Mr Ben Ali.
Mr Ghannouchi was exiled in 1989 by Ben Ali, who was toppled on January 14 by popular protests that have sent tremors through an Arab world where similarly autocratic leaders have long sought to suppress Islamist groups.
His party, Ennahda, is expected to contest future legislative but not presidential elections, dates for which have yet to be set.
The Islamists were Tunisia's strongest opposition force at the time Mr Ben Ali cracked down on them in 1989 but are thought not to have played a leading role in the popular revolt. But at Tunis airport othey were out in force.
Up to 10,000 young men and veiled women packed the arrival hall and car park. Some climbed trees and electricity pylons to catch a glimpse of the 69-year-old Ghannouchi, who says he has no ambition to run for state office.
"Oh great people who called for this blessed revolution, continue your revolution, preserve it and translate it into democracy, justice and equality," Mr Ghannouchi told the crowd, to chants of "Allahu Akbar".
Ennahda supporters embraced each other in joy. A group of men performed prayers on a grass verge, a scene unthinkable in Tunisia just a few weeks ago.
Ennahda likens its ideology to that of Turkey's ruling AK Party, saying it is committed to democracy. Experts on political Islam say its ideas are some of the most moderate among Islamist groups.
Meanwhile in Bern, Swiss prosecutors say they have launched a money laundering investigation into accounts belonging to Mr Ben Ali and his family.
The Federal Prosecutors Office says the accounts blocked two weeks ago contain tens of millions of Swiss francs.
A Prosecutors Office spokesman, Walburga Bur, says the probe may take time as some of the cases are complicated.
The Zurich weekly NZZ am Sonntag reported that Swiss authorities were alerted about the money laundering allegations by financial institutions