Sunday, January 23, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Tunisian police have placed two former allies of the ousted president under house arrest, the official news agency reported Sunday, as protesters kept up pressure on the caretaker government to lock the old guard out of power.

The crackdown against former cronies of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali marked the latest moves by the tenuous interim government to respond to an incessant groundswell of opposition to his old guard.

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," which drove the iron-fisted Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, has sparked similar protests and civil disobedience across the Middle East and North Africa. Many observers are looking to see if Tunisians can complete their fervent push for democracy.

State news agency TAP said former Ben Ali allies Abdallah Kallel and Abdelaziz Ben Dhia have been placed under house arrest, and police are looking for a third man, Abdelwaheb Abdallah.

Kallel, the Senate president and a former government minister, was stopped from leaving the country after Ben Ali fled. A Geneva-based legal advocacy group, Trial, said torture was widespread in Tunisia while Kallel was interior minister in the early 1990s.

Ben Dhia is considered one of Ben Ali's most influential advisers, and Abdallah was a top political adviser to the former president who kept tabs on communication - notably on Tunisia's powerful state-run media.

Hundreds of protesters - many from Tunisia's provinces south of the capital - rallied in the capital, Tunis, to press on with their demands that holdovers of Ben Ali's repressive 23-year regime be kept out of power.

The demonstrators scattered throughout the capital - near the prime minister's office, and the finance and defense ministries, and a city office building - waving banners and photos of a young man who set himself on fire and triggering the uprising that ended Ben Ali's rule.

"Bouazizi gave his life for his country," read one banner honoring 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in central Sidi Bouzid last month to protest harassment under Ben Ali.

The pilgrimage billed as the "Caravan of Freedom" left Saturday on a 320-kilometer (200-mile) trek to Tunis by car, truck and motorcycle from around Sidi Bouzid, protester Tahri Nabil said. Some hitchhiked or walked.

"We don't want Sidi Bouzid to continue to be marginalized like it was in the previous decades," said Nabil, a French language teacher who lives in the town of Menzel Bouzayane near Sidi Bouzid.

Weeks of public upheaval and the shooting deaths of some protesters by police on orders from Ben Ali's government helped send him fleeing to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. Since then, demonstrators have led peaceful protests daily in Tunis to call on the caretaker government to rid itself of his old guard.

Some at the Tunis protest Sunday carried a makeshift coffin that was draped in a Tunisian flag - in a symbol of those who died as "martyrs" of the uprising.

Many marchers in the predominantly Muslim country chanted the line "There is no God but God, and the Martyr is God's Beloved" and some held aloft signs saying "Long live a Free Tunisia" and urging Ben Ali's former RCD party to be banned from power.

"We have gotten rid of the head of the snake but the tail is still alive - and we need to completely kill it," said protester Nizar Bouazziz, a 24-year-old student who said he walked to the rally from Sidi Bouzid.

"We are here to support our people and the revolution," he added. "We don't want to see one party gone and then another same oppressive party in its place. We want the Tunisians who have been forced into exile and who have good education and money to come back and invest in this country."

Weeks of public upheaval and the shooting deaths of some protesters by police on orders from Ben Ali's government helped send him fleeing. But daily peaceful protests have continued to try to force the old guard from power.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took that post in 1999 under Ben Ali and has kept it through the upheaval, has vowed to quit politics after upcoming elections. But he has insisted that he needs to stay on to shepherd Tunisia through a transition to democracy. Many other Cabinet members are also Ben Ali-era holdovers.


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