Tear gas fired at Tunisia protesters

AFP , Monday 24 Jan 2011

Anti-government protesters throwing stones outside the PM's office were confronted by police, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowds

Police fired tear gas at anti-government protesters throwing stones outside the Tunisian prime minister's office on Monday at the start of a make-or-break week for the transition government.

Schools were also set to re-open on Monday but some stayed shut because of a strike called by teachers in protest against the government put in place following the end of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers, known under its French acronym as the UGTT, has refused to recognise the new government because it includes key figures from the ousted regime, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

Many Tunisians feel the same way and have held daily protests since the government was announced last Monday, calling also for the destruction of Ben Ali's powerful RCD party, which has dominated Tunisia for decades.

The prime minister, who has been in place since 1999, has refused to quit and says he will resign from politics but only after the north African state's first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

He said the vote could be held within six months but has not set a date.

The government has meanwhile unveiled unprecedented democratic reforms including allowing full media freedoms, releasing political prisoners and registering political parties that were banned under Ben Ali.

The United States has called on the embattled prime minister to move quickly to allow democratic freedoms and hold free elections, while governments around the world have said they support the aspirations of the Tunisian people.

Many of the protesters outside Ghannouchi's offices had made their way to the capital from rural parts of Tunisia, staking out the building overnight in defiance of a curfew.

Some of them demanded the resignation of the new government, holding up pictures of victims of Ben Ali, who have been hailed by the new government as "martyrs of the revolution".

"We will stay here until the government resigns and runs away like Ben Ali," said Othmene, 22, a student.

Although there were no reports of unrest through the night, the riot squad fired tear gas after stones were thrown on Monday morning.

The government has imposed a curfew and a state of emergency banning any public assemblies, which the government has kept in place as it tries to re-impose order in the country following days of dramatic upheaval.

The government has also said it plans to re-open schools and universities this week after they were shut on 10 January in the final days of Ben Ali's regime in a bid to stamp out the popular protest movement among the young.

It has also moved against Ben Ali's relatives and loyalists.

On Sunday, the TAP state news agency quoted an official saying three key Ben Ali allies including Senate president Abdallah Kallal were under house arrest.

The head of the country’s leading private television station, Hannibal TV, was also arrested for "high treason" for plotting to bring back Ben Ali.

The channel was briefly taken off the air and it later re-appeared with a new inscription under its logo reading: "Voice of the People".

Officials said earlier 33 Ben Ali relatives had been arrested and the once all-powerful family's assets had been frozen pending an investigation.

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