Tunisia mourns slain soldiers, urges unity

AFP , Tuesday 30 Jul 2013

Early elections and call for unity government do not appease Tunisians raging over hacking of eight soldiers in Mount Chaambi

People gather outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government, in Tunis 28 July, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Tunisia mourned Tuesday eight soldiers slain by militants as appeals for unity from the Islamist-led government and the calling of a general election for December failed to quell violent protests.

The soldiers were found Monday, their throats slit after they were ambushed by an armed group in Mount Chaambi near the Algerian border where the army has been tracking Al-Qaeda militants.

Their brutal killing triggered protests in the nearby eastern city of Kasserine, where demonstrators ransacked the local office of the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party overnight, an AFP correspondent reported.

The attack came despite calls by President Moncef Marzouki for national unity and after Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh announced that a general election would be held in December.

The poll is seen as a concession aimed at appeasing a growing mood of rebellion in Tunisia, where emotions have run high since last week's assassination of a prominent opposition MP.

Many Tunisians want the government to go, believing it is responsible for Thursday's murder of Mohamed Brahmi -- the second opposition figure killed since February.

The North African nation, cradle of the wave of popular uprisings that swept the region, has been rocked by almost a week of violent anti-government protests.

The prime minister insisted on Monday that the government would stay put -- a view not shared by Ennahda coalition partner Ettakatol and the 500,000-strong General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT).

Etakkatol on Tuesday issued a statement calling for the formation of "a government of national unity" to stave off tensions.

The powerful UGTT, a key player in the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, held crisis talks overnight and also issued a statement saying the government must go.

"The UGTT calls for the dissolution of the government and the formation of a competent, consensual" cabinet, the union's secretary general Sami Tahri told Mosaique FM radio on Tuesday.

But the powerful union did not back the call of thousands of protesters, who for a third night in a row demonstrated outside the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in central Tunis, calling for its dissolution.

The prime minister remained defiant.

"This government will stay in office," Larayedh told state television.

"We are not clinging to power, but we have a duty and a responsibility that we will exercise to the end," he said on Monday evening, proposing instead that a general election be held on December 17.

Just hours later, officials announced the murder of the soldiers near the Algerian border where troops have been hunting Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

State television ran pictures of the mutilated corpses of the victims, some of whom had their throats cut and were stripped of their weapons and uniforms.

In a televised address, Marzouki, the secular president who is allied to Ennahda, called for national unity after the soldiers' deaths as his office announced three days of national mourning.

"If we want to face up to this danger we have to face up to it united," he said.

"I call on the political class to return to dialogue because the country, society, is under threat."

Marzouki also referred to Brahmi's assassination and regretted that this "tragedy" had divided the country.

Since Brahmi's death, around 60 politicians have pulled out of the work of the NCA, which is drawing up the country's new constitution.

The government, and the UGTT, stressed that deputies must return to work and vote on the much-delayed constitution, one of the thorniest issue in post-revolution Tunisia.

"We think that the National Constituent Assembly will complete the electoral code by October 23 at the latest so elections can be held on December 17," Larayedh said.

Larayedh urged "all Tunisians, parties, associations to avoid letting themselves be drawn in by calls to the unknown, chaos and violence".

December 17 is a significant date.

It was on that day in 2010 that fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in the town of Sidi Bouzid, beginning the Tunisian revolution that ended Ben Ali's 23-year grip on power.

In the past few days, police have clashed with protesters in both Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, which is also Brahmi's home town.

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