TUNIS // Riot police fired tear gas at angry protesters today as Tunisia's prime minister defended the decision to include members of the deeply unpopular old regime in a government shake-up aimed at quelling the country's simmering unrest.
Tunisia's capital awoke to bustling, everyday life for the first time since its ousted president fled the country last week, but the peace quickly ended downtown as police lobbed tear gas to scatter about 200 protesters marching toward the interior ministry - many in the crowd coughing, sputtering and tearing up. Helicopters circled overhead.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi claimed that his announcement Monday to include ministers from President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's old guard in a new unity government was a necessary step "because we need them in this phase."
Tunisia has entered "an era of liberty," Mr Ghannouchi said in an interview with France's Europe-1 radio posted on its website. "Give us a chance so that we can put in place this ambitious programme of reform."
He insisted the ministers chosen "have clean hands, in addition to great competence," suggesting that experienced officials are needed along with opposition leaders in a caretaker government to guide the country before free elections are held in coming months.
The country has suffered riots, looting and an apparent settling-of-scores after Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday, as public protests spread over years of state repression, corruption, and a shortage of jobs for many educated young adults. The government announced on Monday that 78 civilians have died in the month of unrest.