x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tunisia mourns "martyrs of the revolution"

Flags fly at half-mast and state television broadcast prayers from the Quran for the 78 people that officials say were killed during the uprising.

TUNIS // Tunisia began national mourning yesterday for the dozens killed in its revolution, a week after the ouster of the long-time ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, as new protests called for the old regime to be destroyed.

Flags flew at half-mast and state television broadcast prayers from the Quran for the 78 people that officials say were killed when security forces cracked down on a wave of social protests that began last month.

Tunisia's religious affairs ministry said all imams would recite a prayer for "martyrs of the revolution" after Friday prayers in mosques.

The new transitional government has declared three days of mourning.

Mr Ben Ali resigned abruptly and fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after 23 years in power. The new government has announced major democratic freedoms.

Hundreds of people rallied in the capital Tunis again yesterday against the inclusion of old regime figures in the new government, calling for a new executive.

"You stole the wealth of the country but you're not going to steal the revolution! Government resign! We will stay loyal to the blood of the martyrs!" protesters chanted as they marched down the city centre's Avenue Bourguiba.

Some waved Tunisian flags, others the flag of the main UGTT trade union.

The UGTT, which played an instrumental role in the wave of protests that led to Mr Ben Ali's ouster, has refused to recognise the new government unveiled on Monday and pulled out its three ministerial appointees.

"RCD Out!" read one placard at the protest - a reference to Mr Ben Ali's former ruling party, which has dominated Tunisian politics since independence from France in 1956, and is one of the most widely hated symbols of the regime.

One protester held up a sign reading "Our President" next to a photograph of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit vendor who inspired the uprising against Mr Ben Ali after setting himself on fire in a protest last month.

Committees set up by the new leadership to organise democratic elections, investigate the repressions of the old regime and probe corruption allegations against the Ben Ali family were to begin working later yesterday.

Meanwhile, the dissident journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who lives in Paris, said he would run in the planned presidential election.

Moncef Marzouki, another dissident who returned to Tunisia this week after years of exile in Paris, has also said he wants to run.

No date has been set for the elections but the government has said it expects to hold them within six months. Under the country's constitution, elections should be held in less than two months.

"The people today are expecting and calling for a settling of scores," the independent daily Le Quotidien said in an editorial.

But Le Temps, a newspaper owned by a key old regime figure, said: "There has to be a middle way between a security and economic situation that is currently very fragile and the aspirations for freedom and democracy."

The government earlier ordered the seizure of all assets controlled by the Ben Alis and the RCD party, which has officially expelled Ben Ali from its membership and dissolved its political bureau in a bid for political survival.

Eight old regime ministers in the new government have also quit the party.

The European Union is planning to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his family. A final decision is expected at the end of the month.

State television reported meanwhile that weapons had been seized in the home of a member of Ben Ali's family, with images showing sniper rifles, pistols and hunting rifles said to have been buried in the garden of his villa.

Officials on Thursday said that 33 members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested while the government approved a general amnesty bill that would free political prisoners and legalise previously banned political parties.

Banned political groups include the popular Islamist movement Ennahdha (Awakening), whose leader Rached Ghannouchi, exiled in London, was handed a life sentence by Ben Ali's regime for plotting against the state.

There has been a gradual return to normality in Tunisia following weeks of turmoil but a state of emergency banning public assemblies remains in place, schools and universities are still shut and there is a curfew at night.

Social protests meanwhile have continued in poorer central parts of Tunisia.