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Tunisia cracks down on shooters

Security forces arrest suspects involved in terrorizing the public, while citizens target symbols of power and wealth of the former regime

AP, Sunday 16 Jan 2011
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Police on Sunday arrested dozens suspected in drive-by shootings that terrorized Tunisians, part of efforts to restore calm to the North African nation after weeks of protests and the historic ouster of its longtime president.

Tunisians and observers worldwide were looking for signs about which way the country would turn as a new leadership sought to tamp down looting, arson attacks and random violence since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was driven from power Friday to widespread public relief.

After a night when gunfire crackled in central Tunis, a well-known human rights advocate returned home to the embattled - but in many ways, hopeful - country in the midst of an unprecendented power shift for the Arab world.

Souhayr Belhassen, a Tunisian woman who is president of the International Federation of Human Rights, arrived at Tunis' airport and said her long-repressed countrymen appear poised for unprecedented freedoms.

Dozens of people have died in a month of clashes between police and protesters angry about the repression and corruption of Ben Ali's government _ unrest that ultimately marked the end of his 23-year regime.

A crowd of 200 people in central Tunis cheered Sunday as police drove away an ambulance and arrested its driver on suspicions that he was behind a drive-by shooting.

"Criminals are using ambulances to fire on people," a police official in charge of security downtown told The Associated Press, showing his badge but declining to give his name.

Another police official said more than 50 people have been arrested since Saturday on suspicion of using ambulances, rental cars and vehicles of the civil protection services for random shootings.

A day of violence Saturday cast doubt on hopes for a smooth transition to a post-Ben Ali era: Snipers attacked police at the Interior Ministry, and looting and score-settling attacks besieged wealthy neighborhoods, department stores and shops.

Businesses owned by Ben Ali's family were major targets of looters. The family of the ex-president's wife, Leila Trabelsi, has financial interests in wide-ranging sectors from banking to car dealerships. A branch of the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Ben Ali's son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by Kia, Fiat and Porsche- brands distributed in Tunisia by members of the ruling family.

Tunisians are especially overjoyed at the prospect of life without Ben Ali's wife and her family _ widely despised as the ultimate symbol of corruption and excess. The clan of Trabelsi, a hairdresser who rose to become the country's most influential woman, has been the target of pent-up rage _ even more so than her husband and his iron-fisted rule.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks discussed the high levels of nepotism and corruption displayed by her clan.

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

Fouad Mebazaa, the former head of parliament's lower house, was named interim president on Saturday and quickly ordered the creation of a national unity government that would include longtime opponents of Ben Ali.

Elections must be held in 60 days. Previous elections saw Ben Ali win with questionably high support levels _ 89 percent or more _ and media watchdogs had criticized his lock on the country's media.

"We can start to hope," said a founder of the main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, Nejib Chebbi. The question now, he said, is whether a new government will be pluralistic or again dominated by Ben Ali's ruling RCD party. "If the RCD is dominant, we're not out of the woods." The 74-year-old Ben Ali and family members fled to Saudi Arabia. Some family members were in France, but authorities said they were not welcome to remain.

Tunis' airport reopened Saturday but a state of emergency continued. Thousands of tourists were being evacuated Sunday from the Mediterranean nation, whose wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins are a strong draw for Europeans seeking relief from winter.

Street violence took a new form Saturday with roving gangs sacking homes in at least one wealthy neighborhood and residents, armed with golf clubs, forming self-styled vigilante committees.

Some citizens voiced suspicions the gangs were Ben Ali loyalists bent on sewing chaos. Others worried about food shortages with so many shops looted.
"This all happened in three days. Maybe tomorrow we can't eat," said Mohsen Yacoubi.

A Paris-based photojournalist, Lucas Mebrouk Dolega, 32, of the EPA photo agency, died Sunday after being hit Friday in the face by a tear gas canister.
The downfall of Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, delivered a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world _ especially he managed his country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations.

The improved quality of life for many failed to keep up with the increased limits on civil rights like freedom of expression. The jobless rate is officially 14 percent, but is thought to be far higher among young people who make up more than half the population.

The self-immolation, and eventual death, of a 26-year-old university graduate selling fruits in central Tunisia last month triggered a dizzying series of riots that moved to the capital and, relayed by social media like Facebook, spun into general anger against the regime.

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