Tunisians mourn slain protesters

AP , Friday 21 Jan 2011

Tunisians mourn the deaths of tens of protesters killed during the demonstrations that led to the ousting of former president Ben Ali

Tunisians lowered flags and state television broadcast recitations of the Quran on Friday to mourn dozens who died in protests that drove the country's strongman from power.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered peacefully across from the long-dreaded interior ministry in central Tunis, chanting "Down with the government!" The site, cordoned off by security forces, has seen near-daily protests for the past week by those who say the caretaker government is still too dominated by cronies of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The government has declared three days of national mourning beginning Friday as it struggles to restore calm and reconcile a hopeful but scarred Muslim nation in North Africa. Tunisia is a beach and desert haven for European tourists and U.S. ally in the fight against terror.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia a week ago with his family.

The interior minister said 78 civilians were killed, many shot by police, in nearly a month of protests over unemployment, corruption and repression. A French photographer was also killed as were some members of the security forces, and scores of people were injured.

Opposition members say the toll was much higher.

On Friday, flags were lowered at public buildings around Tunisia, and television showed little but Quran recitations. In the streets of the capital Tunis, however, many shops and businesses opened as usual.

The protest near the Interior Ministry was almost festive, with women ululating and crowds carrying balloons.

Omar Shahbani, a 43-year-old auditor, carried 15 balloons of different sizes and colors.

"I brought the beautiful colors of the Tunisian people," he said. "The balloons make people happy and remind us of the festival that freedom is." He said the mood was similar to 1987, when Ben Ali took power in a bloodless coup.

"I was 23 in 1987 and today I feel like I'm 23 again. My youth has returned to me with this revolution and I can play with balloons again like a child," he said.

Some protesters held a sign in English referring to President Barack Obama's "Yes, we can" campaign slogan: "They said 'We can,' Tunisians say, 'We DO!"

On Thursday, he army fired warning shots to calm a noisy but peaceful protest in front of the long-ruling RCD party's headquarters, where demonstrators took down a huge sign and demanded that the government be dismantled, too.

Ministers in the interim government, Tunisia's first multiparty Cabinet, met for the first time Thursday and came out showing a united front. The government has already seen several resignations since it was formed Monday.

The government suggested that Islamists imprisoned under Ben Ali would be given amnesty.

Tunisians espousing political Islam are now seeking a place in government. But they will face many challenges in this westward-looking nation where abortions are legal and Muslim headscarves are banned in public buildings.

The government also pledged to restore goods and real estate appropriated by the ruling party under Ben Ali.

Slim Amamou, a blogger jailed under Ben Ali's repressive information control policies, was named to the new government this week. He tweeted throughout a Cabinet meeting and at the end told reporters, "This is a good government."

"What happened in this meeting I am completely comfortable with. These people want to serve their country," he said.

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