Authorities struggle to restore order in Tunisia

By Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Elaine Ganley
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 10:49 PM

TUNIS - Major gun battles erupted outside the palace of Tunisia's deposed president, in the center of the capital, in front of the main opposition party headquarters and elsewhere on Sunday as authorities struggled to restore order and the world waited to see whether the North African nation would continue its first steps away from autocratic rule.

Police arrested dozens of people, including the top presidential security chief, as tensions appeared to mount between Tunisians buoyant over Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's departure and loyalists in danger of losing major perks.

There were cheers and smiles in much of Tunis, the capital, as residents tore down the massive portraits of Ben Ali, some of them several stories high, that hung from lampposts and billboards and were omnipresent during his 23-year reign.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi said on state TV that a new national unity government will "most certainly" be announced Monday "to open a new page in the history of Tunisia." There are three legal opposition parties that could be included in the government Ghannoushi has been directed to form by the interim president, Fouad Mebazaa. Negotiations are advanced, Ghannoushi said Sunday night.

Worries among Tunisians, however, grew with the violence and worsening shortages of essentials such as milk, bread and fresh fish.

"We're starting to feel it now," said Imed Jaound at the Tunis port, which has been closed since Friday, when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

A gun battle broke out around the presidential palace late Sunday afternoon in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, about 10 miles north of Tunis. The army and members of the newly appointed presidential guard fought off attacks from militias loyal to Ben Ali, said a member of the new presidential guard. Helicopters were surveying the zone.

The militias emerged from a forest to charge, the guard member said by telephone. He said the militia are "numerous" and are using various kinds of arms but gave no further details. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be publicly named.

Residents of Carthage - a center of power in ancient times but now a Tunis suburb popular with tourists - said they have barricaded themselves inside their homes amid the shooting. Many soldiers were in the palace, but it was unclear whether any of the interim government's leaders were.

One Carthage resident said she saw four men in a taxi speed through a military checkpoint at the end of her street and toward the palace nearby. Soldiers shot at the taxi and the men inside returned fire.

The resident, who asked not to be named because of security concerns, said her neighbors saw other armed men break through checkpoints in civilian cars. The gun battle lasted about four hours before calm returned in the evening, she said.

Other gunfights broke out near the PDP opposition party headquarters and a two-hour-long gun battle raged behind the Interior Ministry, long feared during Ben Ali's reign as a torture site. Residents of the city center heard constant volleys of gunfire throughout much of the afternoon; they were ordered to stay away from windows and keep their curtains closed.

The prime minister said Sunday night that police and the army have arrested numerous members of armed groups, without saying how many.

"The coming days will show who is behind them," Ghannoushi said. He added that arms and documents have been seized from those arrested.

"We won't be tolerant towards these people," the prime minister said.

The security chief, Ali Seriati, and his deputy were charged with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and "provoking disorder, murder and pillaging," the TAP state news agency reported.

- Associated Press

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