Clashes sweep Tunisia; general strike called

Country's main trade union calls a general strike tomorrow

Tunisia was hit Thursday by fresh protests, clashes and strikes sparked by the assassination of outspoken opposition leader Chokri Belaid, as the ruling Islamists broke ranks over how to defuse the crisis.

The country's main trade union called a general strike on Friday to coincide with the funeral of Belaid, a lawyer and vocal critic of the ruling Ennadha party who was shot dead outside his home by a lone gunman.

In the capital, police fired tear gas at demonstrators marching on the interior ministry to protest Belaid's assassination in broad daylight on Wednesday, an AFP correspondent said.

The protest march came despite a heavy deployment of police in Habib Bourguiba Avenue, epicentre of the 2011 uprising that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and where thousands had gathered Wednesday in scenes reminiscent of the revolt.

Shops reopened in the centre of the city, but many of them kept their shutters down to save their windows from being smashed.

Clashes also erupted in Gafsa, in Tunisia's volatile central mining region, with protesters throwing petrol bombs at police who fired tear gas in response, correspondents said.

The Gafsa demonstration was organised by the Popular Front, an alliance of leftist parties to which Belaid belonged.

Thursday's unrest follows violence the day before that left one policeman dead in Tunis and saw protesters torch and ransack offices of the Islamist party Ennahda in a number of towns, including Gafsa.

Tunisian lawyers, judges and some teachers began a strike on Thursday while the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) announced on its website it had called a general strike on Friday.

Ennahda has been squarely accused by Belaid's family of being behind the killing -- charges it vigorously denies.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who hails from Ennahda, said in a televised address on Wednesday that he would form a new administration of non-political technocrats ahead of fresh elections.

"I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time," he said.

Jebali, who is expected to remain in his post, did not specify that he was dissolving the existing government, nor did he set a date for the reshuffle which must be confirmed by the national assembly.

But Ennadha's parliamentary leader, Sahbi Atig, said his block of MPs rejected the plans, reflecting the divisions within the party.

"We have rejected this proposal... The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement," he said on national television.

Abdelhamid Jelassi, a member of Ennahda's political bureau, also criticised Jebali's decision,

"As far as we are concerned, our country still needs a government coalition based on the results of the elections on October 23, 2011" that Ennahda won, said Jelassi.

Jelassi said the prime minister, who is number two in Ennahda, "had not consulted the party's political bureau before making the announcement".

Jebali is considered a moderate within his party and has for months been locked in negotiations with the secular parties in the coalition who have demanded that some ministries be assigned to independents, a move rejected by Ennahda hardliners.

Four opposition groups including Belaid's Popular Front bloc said they were pulling out of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), elected in October 2011 but which has failed to draft a new constitution.

Belaid's family said his funeral will take place on Friday after the main weekly prayers. Hundreds gathered on Thursday outside his family home to pay their respects, witnesses said.

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