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Tunisian President to launch talks with unions

A Tunisian soldier sits on a tank during a protest in Tunis. Tunisia's Senate agreed unanimously to grant powers to Mebazaa. The upper house followed the lead of the lower house of parliament which on Monday authorised that he could rule by decree. (AFP)


Tunisia's interim president Foued Mebazaa on Wednesday announced that talks with unions would be held soon, after he was given wide powers to restore order following the ouster of ex-leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia's Senate earlier in the day agreed unanimously to grant powers to Mebazaa. The upper house followed the lead of the lower house of parliament which on Monday authorised that he could rule by decree.

"These social negotiations are the best framework for dialogue and consultation to resolve the social situation of all categories of people in all sectors," Mebazaa said on national television, marking his first direct address to the nation since taking power on January 15 - the day after Ben Ali fled the country.

He called for "patience" on the part of Tunisians as the country remains mired by turmoil.

"Your demands are legitimate, but you must understand the difficult situation in which our country is confronted," Mebazaa said.

A stray bullet from the gun of a soldier who fired warning shots to disperse a crowd in Tunis meanwhile wounded a 26-year-old man, witnesses said.

They said the crowd of jobless people had massed outside the social affairs ministry, which on Tuesday began distributing a dole to the handicapped and unemployed.

The shots were fired as the crowd refused to line up before the offices opened but instead tried to force a way in, the witnesses said.

The measures voted by parliament empowers Mebazaa to sidestep the assembly made up mostly of followers of Ben Ali and decide key issues by decree, relating notably to the transition to democracy and the holding of elections within six months.

These include a possible general amnesty, human rights legislation, the organisation of political parties and a new electoral code.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said that parties banned under Ben Ali would be made legal within days ahead of "transparent and fair elections with the participation of all the parties."

The transitional government has banned Ben Ali's ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Assembly, and accused loyalists of the former leader ousted on January 14 of attempting to foment unrest so as to block the transition to democracy.

Mass protests sparked partly by poverty and unemployment erupted across the country last month, resulting in Ben Ali's ouster. Pockets of unrest remain and police, closely associated with the hated Ben Ali regime, have played no role in restoring law and order.

On Tuesday the government called up reservists to bolster the army which has been carrying out security duties to help keep order.

Some 234 people have been killed during the unrest in Tunisia and 510 have been injured, an official source told AFP on Tuesday. The United Nations last week had put the figure at 219.

Ghannouchi Wednesday called on Tunisians to return to work, saying the country had suffered "considerable losses" because of the unrest.

The head of the Tunis-based African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, told AFP the bank would be prepared to give Tunisia substantial additional funding to help it face up to immediate problems.

And a group of French travel agents visiting the country said they planned a strong promotional drive to encourage the return of tourists within weeks. The industry, one of Tunisia's main sources of income, saw a 40 per cent drop in revenue in January and February is expected to be similar.

Tourism Minister Mehdi Houas said that with the eventual lifting of the curfew and the return of security, "We are counting on a real recovery around March-April."