Tunisia frees prisoners, says wants break with past
By Christian Lowe and Andrew Hammond
2 hrs 36 mins ago
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia's interim leadership promised a "complete break with the past" and freed political prisoners on Wednesday in efforts to appease street protesters who want a total purge of the old guard from a unity government.
Five days after veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with some of his wealthy entourage, former political allies including the prime minister were still trying to coax opposition figures into a national unity government which can restore order and oversee promised free elections.
Demonstrators, though less numerous than during the days of rage which unseated Ben Ali, continued to insist on the removal of all ministers from his once feared RCD party. Only that, they say, can satisfy the hopes of their "Jasmine Revolution," which has delivered a shock to autocrats across the Arab world.
In answer, interim President Fouad Mebazza, who until last week was the speaker of Ben Ali's rubber-stamp parliament, made an evening broadcast on state television in which he hailed a "revolution of freedom and dignity" and promised that the RCD's decades of dominance of the Tunisian state were at an end.
"We very much want to separate the state from the RCD," said Mebazza, who, along with Prime Minister Mohamed al-Ghannouchi, resigned from the party on Tuesday.
"There will be a complete break with the past."
Underlining that, state television said 33 of Ben Ali's extended clan had been arrested. It showed seized gold and jewelry. Switzerland also froze Ben Ali's family assets.
"THE FAMILY" IS GONE
In the wealthy Tunis suburb of Carthage, eerily quiet since the flight of the feared clique Tunisians one whispered of as "The Family," villas stood abandoned and vandalized.
On the walls of one opulent home belonging to Imed Trabelsi, a particularly unpopular brother of Ben Ali's wife Leila, someone had scrawled: "Tunisia is free, Bouazizi is a hero."
Mohamed Bouazizi was the young man whose suicide by burning in protest at repression and poverty sparked the protests.
Popular anger on the streets has subsided somewhat, but Ghannouchi is struggling still to rally his unity coalition.
Four opposition appointees quit as ministers on Tuesday. A first cabinet meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
For all the rage at Ben Ali, many Tunisians seem ready to give Ghannouchi a chance to make good on promises of elections.
Mebazza said police had detained those responsible for violence last week, when dozens of people were killed: "There has been an improvement in security and we want more," he said.
"We have found all those responsible for the chaos, terrorizing the people and the spread of gangs."
"I will do all I can and use all my powers so our country gets over this difficult situation and so that all legitimate hopes created by this noble uprising are realized and so that this revolution of freedom and dignity is realized."
Yet the old RCD elite still has some persuading to do.
About 500 people protested in central Tunis on Wednesday, fewer than of late but still vocal: "We got rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship," said Faydi Borni, a teacher. "We want rid of this government that shut us up for 30 years."
However, other Tunisians are eager for calm: "We've been living so long under pressure but maybe we should give the government a chance," said one woman bystander, who did not want to give her name. "People will have a chance to vote."
In a sign security was improving, state television said that the nightly curfew was shortened by three hours.
An unspecified number of Ben Ali's opponents have been freed from their jails, the last of them on Wednesday. Najib Chebbi, whose move from marginalized opposition to a ministerial appointment is emblematic of the new Tunisia, said: "All the political prisoners have been released today."
These included members of the banned Islamist movement Ennahda. While authoritarian Arab rulers have long cited the threat of radical Islam to justify repression to their Western allies, Tunisia's Islamist opposition has been less visible than those in poorer and less secular states of the region.
Moncef Marzouki, an opposition leader who has returned from exile in France, visited the grave of Bouazizi. People in the crowd flew banners which included "Ben Ali's people must go!"
Marzouki called for an independent figure to be appointed in place of the prime minister Ghannouchi: "If the situation continues with a government built on this old dictatorship the situation will continue on the street," Marzouki told Reuters.
Underlining international concern over Tunisia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to veteran Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Washington's desire for calm.
At a summit in Egypt, the head of the Arab League warned the region's leaders to heed economic and political problems.
The United Nations said it would send a team of human rights officials to Tunisia next week to advise the government. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the new leaders must listen more to the people and hold free elections -- something he said other Arab countries would also do well to do.
A U.N. official put the death toll in Tunisia at over 100. The Tunisian government puts the figure at 78.
Rating agency Moody's Investors Service on Wednesday lowered its credit rating for Tunisia, and Standard and Poor's has threatened to do so if uncertainty continues. The cost of insuring Tunisia's debt against default rose sharply.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Philippa Fletcher)