Dozens killed in Tunisia jail riot, drive-by shootings reported

Hundreds of soldiers manned the streets of the Tunisian capital on Saturday, as shooting, fires and riot news keep coming from the country

Dozens killed in Tunisia jail riot, drive-by shootings reported

Squads of men shot at random from cars in Tunis on Saturday and inmates staged a mass jailbreak as politicians sought to map out a path to a coalition government and an election after the president was swept from power.

It was not clear who the assailants were but a senior military source told Reuters that people affiliated to former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were behind the attacks.

Soldiers and tanks were stationed in the centre of Tunis to try to restore order after a night of looting after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of violent anti-government protests that claimed dozens of lives.

Tunisia's highest legal authority on constitutional issues said the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, should be interim president and a presidential election should be held within 60 days. An opposition leader said the prime minister had agreed to the creation of a coalition government.

The speaker of Tunisia's parliament, Fouad Mebazza, has been sworn in as interim president, the official TAP news agency said on Saturday.

Drive-by shootings

In one incident on Saturday, a Reuters reporter was driving through the Bardo district, about 10 km (six miles) from the city centre, when a pick-up truck overtook at high speed.

Four men in civilian clothes could be seen inside the vehicle, two of them wearing basebell caps.

The reporter said he saw the barrel of a pistol sticking out of the window of the pick-up and moments later heard loud gunshots coming from the vehicle. He did not see if anyone was hit.

In another incident on Friday night, a Reuters reporter in the Ettadamen suburb of Tunis said four cars drove along the street, the occupants firing through the windows at people and buildings.

The military source told Reuters: "Ben Ali's security is behind what is happening."

Tunisian analyst Taoufik Ayachi echoed his view. "It is certain the presidential police are behind all this," he said. "They still hope to regain power."

"They are trying to create a state of disorder. Yesterday there was information circulating that they were going to carry out a coup d'etat but the large military presence prevented it."

Tunisian analyst Taoufik Ayachi said of the drive-by shootings, about 10 km from the city centre on Saturday and in another suburb on Friday night: "It is certain the presidential police are behind all this. They still hope to regain power."

Dozens killed in jailbreak

Forty-two inmates were killed in a prison riot in the Tunisian town of Monastir, the official TAP news agency quoted a hospital official as saying.

"Some prisoners tried to escape from the prison, which led to complete chaos," the agency quoted Ali Chedli as saying.

"Some were able to escape and the others set fire to mattresses in a wing housing more than 90 prisoners. Those who died suffered from burns or smoke inhalation."

"They tried to escape and the police fired on them. Now there are tens of people dead and everybody has escaped," said a local man, Imed, who lives 200 metres from Mahdia jail.

In suburban Tunis, the big Geant shopping centre was on fire, witnesses said. Protesters have threatened to continue their campaign against poverty and repression until the government is gone.

Coaliton attempts

An opposition leader who had talks with Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi on Saturday told Reuters Ghannouchi had accepted a proposal from opposition parties to form a coalition government and more talks would be held on Sunday.

"We discussed the idea of a coalition government and the prime minister accepted our request to have a coalition government," Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Union of Freedom and Labour party, told Reuters.

"Tomorrow there will be another meeting with the aim of getting the country out of this situation and to have real reforms. The results of these discussions will be announced tomorrow."

Ghannouchi said on Friday said he was taking over as interim president, before the constitutional announcement.

A Tunisian analyst said the announcement did not signify conflict between Ghannouchi and the speaker but that officials were making sure they were in compliance with the constitution.

France to block Tunisian asset moves

France called on Saturday for free elections as soon as possible in Tunisia and said it had taken steps to block suspicious movements of Tunisian assets in France.

"France has taken the necessary steps to ensure suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets in France are blocked administratively," President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said in a statement.

"France is prepared to meet any request for help to ensure the democratic process takes place in indisputable fashion," said the statement, issued after Sarkozy met several key ministers at his offices for talks on Tunisia.

Ben Ali in Jeddah palace

Behind a high wall in a palace guarded by soldiers, Tunisia's former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family have found a home in Saudi Arabia after being swept from power in Tunis.

Following weeks of violent protest, Ben Ali, president for more than 23 years, fled to the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Friday, arriving late at night after France turned him away.

The Saudi government welcomed Ben Ali and his family but did not say how long they would stay in the Gulf Arab kingdom.

Soldiers at one of the palace's seven gates to grounds adorned by palm trees and greenery ensure that that Ben Ali and his family are not disturbed by reporters or unwanted visitors.

"He came here last night with his family. They are here now but we are under strict orders not to allow anyone to see him," said one captain standing guard at a side gate to the palace.

Reuters

Last Mod: 15 Ocak 2011, 16:43
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