Tunisian marchers head to PM's office - UPDATED

Hundreds of people who had been driven to the capital in a "caravan of freedom" surrounded Ghannouchi's building in central Tunis.

Tunisian marchers head to PM's office - UPDATED

Protesters from rural central Tunisia marched through the capital Sunday, raising the pressure on Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to quit in the wake of the ex-president's ouster.

"The people have come to bring down the government," the hundreds chanted as they marched through the centre of Tunis, waving flags and holding up pictures of some of the dozens of people killed by security forces during the uprising.

The new transitional government, put in place following president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's downfall on January 14, has unveiled unprecedented democratic freedoms but is still led by Ghannouchi and other old regime figures who have 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.

On Sunday, amid a weekend calm, hundreds of people who had been driven to the capital in a "caravan of freedom" surrounded Ghannouchi's building in central Tunis. Many were from Sidi Bouzid, the bleak central city where the "Jasmine Revolution" was sparked a month ago by one young man's suicide.

"We are marginalised. Our land is owned by the government. We have nothing," said Mahfouzi Chouki from near the city, which lies 300 km (200 miles) south of Tunis and a world away from the opulent coastal resorts favoured by Ben Ali's elite.

Demonstrators said they would not let the legacy of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself alight in protest at poverty and oppression, end with Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia and the establishment of a government dominated by his lieutenants.

"The people want this government to fall," the chanted.

"Justice"

Amin Kahli, also from the Sidi Bouzid region, said he was honouring the memory not only of Bouazizi but dozens of others who died when demonstrators took on Ben Ali's armed police.

Kahli himself had lost a brother in the revolt, which stunned the world by felling an autocrat who had enjoyed solid backing from Western powers and fellow Arab leaders since he had eased out the first post-colonial president in 1987.

"My brother was leaving home for work when a sniper shot him in the chest," Kahli said. "He was only 21. I want justice for him and I want this government to fall."

Former members of Ben Ali's RCD ruling party retain key ministries, notably interior, defence and foreign affairs. Politicians from small opposition parties previously tolerated under Ben Ali were allowed to join the government in less vital posts, such as higher education and regional development.

Five such appointees quit the cabinet within a day of Ghannouchi forming it.

Sunday was the last of three days of national mourning declared by the Ghannouchi government for the victims of the unrest that convulsed Tunisia for several weeks.

The government said schools and universities would begin reopening from Monday and sporting events, also on hold since last week, would resume soon. A night curfew remains in place.

Thousands took part in peaceful anti-government demonstrators in Tunis on Saturday and were joined by hundreds of police officers.

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.

"Islamist leader to return"

Not satisfied with his pledge to quit once free elections can be held, hundreds surged past a half-hearted police cordon at the office of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. One banner read: "No place for men of tyranny in a unity government."

Ghannouchi, who stayed on to head a would-be unity coalition after dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled on Jan. 14, made an emotional late-night plea for patience on television on Friday. He portrayed himself as a fellow victim and pledged to end his political career as soon as he could organise elections.

But, one demonstrator outside the premier's office said: "We want to tell Mr Ghannouchi the definition of 'revolution' -- it means a radical change, not keeping on the same prime minister."

It is unclear when elections for president and parliament might be held. But leaders of Islamist and secular opposition groups, harshly repressed under Ben Ali's rule, are preparing to re-enter the political fray.

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

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

Even policemen, once the feared blunt instrument of Ben Ali's 24-year rule, were declaring changed loyalties. In Tunis thousands joined in a chant of "We are innocent of the blood of the martyrs!" at a rally to show their support for the revolt.

Clearly under pressure, Prime Minister Ghannouchi said on television late on Friday: "I lived like Tunisians and I feared like Tunisians." He added: "I pledge to stop all my political activity after my period leading the transitional government."

The response of the street protesters was scornful: "Since 1990, Ghannouchi has been finance minister, then prime minister," said student Firass Hermassi outside Ghannouchi's office. "He knows everything, he's an accomplice."

"Effects in region"

The toppling of an authoritarian ruler by waves of street protests has transfixed Arabs across North Africa and the Middle East.

The underlying problems of unemployment and corrupt rule are common across the region, and its leaders -- many supported by Western powers against Islamists -- are watching anxiously as events in Tunisia unfold.

In neighbouring Algeria, who refused the recognition of election win by Islamistst in the 1990s, police used batons on Saturday to stop a gathering by an opposition group.

In Saudi Arabia, a man burned himself to death. It was not clear if he was, like numerous others in Egypt and elsewhere, inspired by the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable seller whose desperate act last month launched the wave of protests.

In Tunis, a man died after setting himself on fire outside a telephone company. It was not clear what his motive was.

Tunisia's interior minister has given a death toll of 78 since the start of the demonstrations, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights put the number at 117, including 70 killed by live fire.

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



Agencies

Last Mod: 23 Ocak 2011, 18:57
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