Tunisia: Authorities struggle to restore order

Top presidential security chief arrested; gunfights erupt across capital, including near Tunisia's main opposition party building.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
January 16, 2011 17:31
protesters chant slogans in Tunis

Tunisia Freedom 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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TUNIS, Tunisia  — Tunisian authorities struggled to restore order Sunday, arresting the top presidential security chief and trying to stop gunfights that erupted across the capital. One clash broke out near Tunisia's main opposition party building, another by the dreaded Interior Ministry.

Observers worldwide were looking to see which way the North African nation would turn as its new leadership sought to tamp down the looting, arson and random violence that has taken place since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday. The nation was in the midst of an unprecedented power shift for the Arab world.

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Tensions appeared to be mounting between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's departure and loyalists in danger of losing major perks. Tunisian police made dozens of arrests, some for drive-by shooting attacks at buildings and people in the capital, Tunis.

The security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy were charged with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for "provoking disorder, murder and pillaging," the TAP state news agency reported.

To cheers and smiles, some residents of Tunis tore down massive portraits of Ben Ali that were omnipresent during his reign, hanging on lampposts and billboards, gazing down over shops and hotels. Some stretched several stories high.

Police stopped vehicles as the city remained under a state of emergency. More than 50 people were arrested on suspicion of using ambulances, rental cars and government vehicles for random shootings, a police official told The Associated Press. A crowd of 200 in Tunis cheered one such arrest Sunday.



A few gas stations and stores reopened Sunday morning, and calm returned in some residential areas.

But a gunfight broke out in the afternoon between security forces and unidentified attackers in front of the main opposition party PDP's headquarters, said party member Issam Chebbi. A large crowd swarmed the area in central Tunis after the incident and heavy security was deployed.

Soon after the clash, repeated volleys of gunfire were heard close by near the Interior Ministry, once feared as a torture site. The battle was the fiercest clash yet this weekend.

Before the gunbattle at PDP, police stopped, tackled and arrested a group of men in a taxi in front of the party headquarters, according to a video obtained by the AP. Four people were arrested, two Tunisians and two foreigners, Chebbi said. A rifle was seen in the vehicle.

It was unclear if the arrests, the gunbattle at the PDP and the gunbattle near the Interior Ministry were linked.

Dozens of people have died in a month of clashes between police and protesters angry about the repression and corruption under Ben Ali — unrest that ended his 23-year regime.

The interim president, former parliament speaker Fouad Mebazaa, has told the prime minister to create a national unity government and urged him to consult with the opposition, who were marginalized under Ben Ali. Presidential elections must be held in 60 days.

Many Tunisians were especially overjoyed at the prospect of life without Ben Ali's wife Leila Trabelsi and her family. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks had discussed the high levels of nepotism and corruption displayed by her clan.

But U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley reject any notion that WikiLeaks disclosures led to the revolution in Tunisia, saying Sunday that Tunisians were already well aware of the graft, nepotism and lavish lifestyles of the former president and his relatives.

Tunisian media reported one brother-in-law of the president, Imed Trabelsi, was attacked by an angry mob at Tunis airport and died. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

Businesses owned by Ben Ali's family were targeted by looters, including the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law and vehicles made by Kia, Fiat and Porsche — brands distributed by members of the ruling family.

Ordinary Tunsians concentrated on two key needs Sunday — food and security.

Many scoured the capital for food. Most shops remained closed Sunday, others were looted and bread and milk were running short.

"We're starting to feel it now," said Imed Jaound at the Tunis port, which has been closed since Friday.

Fish mongers were selling 2- to 3-day-old fish, said Ezzedine Gaesmi, a salesman at the indoor market in Tunis, where numerous stands were empty.

"There's no fresh fish. If it continues for two or three more days, we'll close," he said.

Overnight patrols were being organized in both wealthy and working-class neighborhoods. Fatma Belaid stayed up late to serve rounds of coffee to patrols in her section of Tunis.

"Everyone participates as he can," she said.

A well-known human rights advocate returned home to the embattled — but in many ways, hopeful — country. Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation of Human Rights, said her long-repressed countrymen appear poised for unprecedented freedoms.

"We can start to hope," agreed Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party. But he said the key question is whether a new government will be pluralistic or again dominated by Ben Ali's RCD party.

"If the RCD is dominant, we're not out of the woods," he said.

Hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated Sunday from the Mediterranean nation known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins.

The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. The self-immolation and death of a despairing, unemployed 26-year-old university graduate last month triggered the protests, and social media like Facebook and Twitter were used to spin general anger into outright revolt.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday the unrest in Tunisia illustrated the widespread instability plaguing the region and underscored the need for strong security arrangements in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

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