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05 December 2023

Tunisia calls up army reserve to tackle violence

Human right activist Sihem Bensedrine, right, argues with a military officer outside the Tunisian parliament. Tunisian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Monday to give the interim government emergency powers following the suspension of ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's party. (AFP/GETTY)

By Reuters

Tunisia asked military reservists to report for duty and warned police they would be fired for skipping work on Monday, in a new drive to restore order three weeks after an uprising overthrew the president.

Security officials in the coalition government put in place after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia have said there is a conspiracy by officials close to the old administration to spread chaos and take back power.

After days of gunfights and looting immediately after Ben Ali was pushed out, it had seemed security was being restored but since last week violence has flared again, raising new questions about Tunisia's stability.

 The military has for weeks been in the streets helping keep order and filling the gap left by a police force whose ranks have been thinned by desertions and absenteeism.

"The Defence Ministry has called on retired members of the army, navy and air force ... to go to the regional centres of conscription and mobilisation nearest to their place of residence," said a ministry statement reported by the official TAP news agency.

Tunisia's uprising against Ben Ali's authoritarian rule inspired protest movements elsewhere in the Arab world, notably in Egypt, and its halting progress towards stability is being watched closely in the region.

Britain announced its foreign minister William Hague will have talks with officials in Tunisia on Tuesday, becoming the highest-ranking Western official to visit since Ben Ali was overthrown.


In a further effort to help restore order, Tunisian lawmakers voted to give interim president Fouad Mebazza the power to rule by decree, allowing him to bypass parliament.

Addressing the chamber, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said those powers were needed to allow the government to respond quickly to the challenges it faces.

The Interior Ministry urged police to play their role in bringing back security.

Public respect for the police is low because many Tunisians blame them for carrying out acts of violent repression during Ben Ali's rule, and suspect them of trying to undermine the new government after he fled.

"The Ministry of Interior calls on police officers to guarantee the security of the country and to act to help all those who ask their help in case of danger," the official news agency quoted the ministry as saying.

"In cases where police leave their workplace to answer urgent calls they must return as soon as the emergency is dealt with. If they do not return they will be considered as having left their job," the ministry said.

At least five people have been killed in provincial towns since Friday, including two shot dead in the northern city of El Kef when police tried to disperse protesters.

There were no reports of any deaths or injuries on Monday but protesters clashed with police again in El Kef and set fire to buildings in the town, local media reported.

In the Tunisian capital, about 300 employees of the foreign ministry staged a protest rally outside their workplace to demand that the minister, Ahmed Ounaiss, step down.

He had angered many Tunisians by lavishing praise on French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who is under fire at home from opposition politicians who accuse her of having cosy relations with Tunisia's ousted administration.