Two allies of Tunisia`s ex-leader `detained`

Protesters rallied outside Tunisian PM Mohammed Ghannouchi`s offices.

Last Updated: Jan 24, 2011, 00:04 AM IST

Tunis: Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied outside Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi`s offices on Sunday, calling for him to quit after the downfall of the north African state`s 23-year regime.

"The people have come to bring down the government," around 5,000 protesters chanted as they brandished pictures of some of the dozens of people killed by security forces during the uprising against president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

They broke through security cordons to reach the doors of the building.

The new transitional government, put in place following Ben Ali`s ouster on January 14, has unveiled unprecedented freedoms but is still led by Ghannouchi. Other old regime figures have also held on to key posts.

"We have come to bring down the rest of the dictatorship," said Mohammed Layani, an elderly man draped in a Tunisian flag, who arrived with hundreds of others from the region in central Tunisia where the uprising began.

The protest was supported by the General Union of Tunisian Workers, known under its French acronym as UGTT, which played a key role in anti-Ben Ali protests and has refused to recognise the fledgling government.

The state news agency, meanwhile, said security forces had detained two more figures linked to the old regime: Senate head Abdallah Kallel, who was a former interior minister, and Abdel Aziz Ben Dhia, a key adviser to Ben Ali and key ideologue of the old regime.

They are being held under house arrest, the report said.

On Saturday, thousands took part in peaceful anti-government demonstration in Tunis and were joined by hundreds of police officers, some of whom briefly blocked a car carrying the country`s interim president Foued Mebazaa.

Public assemblies of more than three people are officially banned under a state of emergency that remains in place, along with a night-time curfew.

The curfew has been eased and schools and universities, which have been shut since January 10, are expected to begin re-opening this week.

Ghannouchi has been prime minister in Tunisia since 1999 and has promised to quit politics after the north African state`s first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

Mebazaa has promised a "total break" with Ben Ali`s 23-year rule and the government has announced that political prisoners will be released, media censorship lifted and all political parties legalised.

Many Tunisians are already enjoying their new-found freedoms after the first popular revolt in the Arab world`s recent history, which has inspired dissidents to protest in many other parts of the region.

"Free at last!" read a sign spray-painted on the central Avenue Bourguiba.

Regional observers are watching to see how far the ripples from Tunisia`s "jasmine revolution" spread.

There have already been numerous cases of self-immolation in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania like the one that set off the Tunisian protests.

Meanwhile the banned Islamist movement Ennahdha has said it intends to register as an official political party and take part in elections.

Its exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi, who lives in London, was quoted by German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday saying he would return to his homeland "very soon".

The government on Saturday also lifted restrictions on the import of foreign literature and films, which were tightly controlled by the previous regime.

But many Tunisians say their revolution has not yet achieved its goals and are calling for the break-up of the powerful former ruling party.

The government has said elections will be held in six months but no dates have been set and under the constitution they should take place in two months.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile has called on the embattled Tunisian prime minister to carry out democratic reforms to stem the country`s political turmoil, her spokesman said Saturday.

Clinton called Prime Minister Ghannouchi "to encourage ongoing reforms, and pledged support for transition to open democracy," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a message on the micro-blogging website Twitter.

Ben Ali resigned abruptly and fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

A Canadian government official said to a news agency on Saturday that one of Ben Ali`s brothers-in-law had arrived in Canada on Friday, while Tunisian authorities said they have arrested 33 members of the family and frozen their assets.

Officials say 78 people were killed during weeks of protest and they have been hailed by Tunisia`s imams as "martyrs of the revolution".

Bureau Report