TUNIS - Riot police fired teargas in front of the Interior Ministry in the Tunisian capital on Thursday to try to disperse hundreds of people protesting against the assassination of opposition figure Mohamed Brahmi, a Reuters witness said.
Tunisian opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi was
shot dead in the second such assassination this year, setting off
violent protests against the Islamist-led government in the capital and
"This criminal gang has killed the free voice of Brahmi," his
widow Mbarka Brahmi told Reuters, without specifying who she thought was behind
the shooting outside their home in Tunis.
Brahmi's sister later accused
the main Islamist Ennahda party of being behind the killing. "Ennahda killed my
brother," Souhiba Brahmi said. Ennahda has condemned the murder.
politician's wife said Brahmi had left the house after receiving a telephone
call. She heard shots and found his body lying on the ground outside as two men
fled on a motorcycle.
Brahmi belonged to the secular, Arab nationalist
Popular Front party, whose then-leader, Chokri Belaid, was killed in a similar
way on Feb. 6. His death ignited the worst violence in Tunisia since President
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fell in 2011.
Divisions between Islamists and
their secular opponents have deepened since the popular uprising against Ben
Ali, which unleashed unrest across the Arab world, unseating rulers in Egypt,
Libya and Yemen, and leading to a civil war in Syria.
Brahmi, 58, was a
critic of the Ennahda-led ruling coalition and a member of the Constituent
Assembly that has drafted a new constitution for the North African nation of 11
The assassination drew swift international
The US State Department called for a "transparent and
professional" investigation, while French President Francois Hollande urged
Tunisians to show "the necessary spirit of responsibility to preserve national
unity and guarantee the pursuit of the democratic transition".
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay called for the killers to be brought
to account and said the government must do more to "deter these terrible acts"
and protect people at risk.
Thousands of people protested outside the
Interior Ministry in Tunis and a hospital in the Ariana district where Brahmi's
body had been taken. "Down with the rule of the Islamists," they chanted, and
demanded that the government resign.
Big crowds accompanied Brahmi's body
when it was taken later for autopsy at another Tunis hospital. Despite the
presence of hundreds of soldiers and police, protesters smashed cars and broke
some windows of the hospital in Ariana, witnesses said.
demonstrations erupted in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the
Tunisian revolution, where protesters set fire to two local Ennahda party
offices, witnesses said.
"Thousands have taken to the streets. People
have blocked roads and set tyres alight," said Mehdi Horchani, a resident of
Sidi Bouzid. "People are very angry." Police fired teargas to disperse
protesters who stormed a local government office in the Mediterranean port of
Sfax, 270 km (170 miles) southeast of Tunis, witnesses said.
biggest labour organisation, UGTT, called for a general strike on Friday in
protest at Brahmi's killing. Its secretary-general, Hussein Abbasi, earlier
predicted that the assassination would lead the country into a
National airline Tunisair said it had cancelled all its
flights to and from Tunisia on Friday in response to the strike call. An airport
spokesman said a decision would be taken soon whether to suspend all flights to
the country, which is trying to renew its popularity with
Tunisia's political transition since the revolt that
toppled Ben Ali has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda
party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But the government has
struggled to revive a stuttering economy and has come under fire from
secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of radical Salafi
The government blamed Belaid's assassination, also carried out
by assailants on a motorcycle, on an unidentified group of Salafi militants,
saying six of them were still on the run.
The Egyptian army's overthrow
of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3 following mass protests against
him has further energised the anti-Islamist opposition in Tunisia.
A protest movement known as Tamarod, modelled on the Egyptian group
of the same name that orchestrated the anti-Morsi demonstrations, has called for
rallies to topple the government.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh condemned
the assassination, but said: "We are against all the calls to dissolve the
government and the Constituent Assembly to create a (power) vacuum." He also
drew a link to the upheaval in Egypt, saying in a televised address that the
assassins had aimed to use events there "to try to undermine our process and
derail it, and take the country into the unknown, whether it is chaos, fighting
or civil war or a return to despotism or a return to square one".
Ghannouchi, the Ennahda party leader, said the attack on Brahmi was aimed at
"halting Tunisia's democratic process and killing the only successful model in
the region, especially after the violence in Egypt, Syria and
"Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario," he told Reuters.
"We will hold on." After the killing of Brahmi, who had applauded the Egyptian
army's removal of Mursi, the leader of his Popular Front called for non-violent
action to oust the Tunisian government.
The assassination occurred on
Tunisia's Republic Day as the country prepares to vote in the next few weeks on
the new constitution before a presidential election later in the
The turmoil dealt another blow to efforts to resuscitate Tunisia's
vital tourism industry. Cultural shows, including the Carthage Festival, were
suspended following Brahmi's killing.
Secular President Moncef Marzouki
appealed for calm and dialogue, but Tunisia looks set for further
Despite recent progress on the constitution, Brahmi's
killing is likely to reactivate the mass protests and strikes across multiple
sectors that followed Belaid's assassination, wrote Anna Boyd, senior Middle
East analyst at IHS Country Risk.
Samir Gadio, at Standard Bank, said he
expected political and economic conditions to deteriorate further in the next
few months, saying Ennahda was losing popularity and might seek to delay
adoption of the constitution and the holding of elections.
Tunisia's army is not influential in the political process, unlike in Egypt, the
risks of an institutional dislocation or even a military intervention are
increasing," he said.
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