Tunisia issues warrant for Ben Ali

Tunisia issued an international arrest warrant for ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as protesters clashed with police on Wednesday and US President Barack Obama hailed the "will of the people".

Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other members of his once all-powerful family are accused of illegally acquiring assets and transferring funds abroad during the leader's 23-year rule, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said.

"No one will be above the law," Chebbi said. Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia and 33 members of his extended family have been arrested in Tunisia.

France and Switzerland earlier said they will freeze any Ben Ali assets.

The minister also said the head of Ben Ali's presidential security force and five others were being investigated for violence following his ouster.

The announcements came as tensions mounted ahead of a radical cabinet revamp expected to be announced soon, with thousands of people taking to the streets in Tunisia's second biggest city, Sfax, during a general strike there.

"The reshuffle will be announced later today or tomorrow. We are still in consultations," Regional Development Minister Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a former opposition leader, said on a talk show on state television.

Sources close to the government said negotiations were currently stalled over new appointments to the defence, foreign and interior ministries.

Riot police meanwhile tear-gassed protesters who have been rallying in the main government quarter in Tunis for four days calling for a clean break with the old regime after some of them tried to force through security barriers.

An AFP reporter saw some 200 protesters throwing stones at police.

Protesters are calling for figures linked to Ben Ali's regime to be removed from the new government and for his powerful RCD party to be disbanded.

Trade unionists in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the first social protests against Ben Ali began last month, will also hold a general strike Thursday.

Obama said in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that in Tunisia "the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator."

"And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."

Obama spoke after thousands took to the streets in Egypt to call for an uprising against President Hosni Mubarak similar to the one in Tunisia.

Four people were killed during the rallies, which were the biggest since riots over bread subsidies shook the Arab world's most populous nation in 1977.

Egyptian police and protesters clashed again in Cairo and Suez Wednesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the top-ranking US official on the Middle East, meanwhile visited Tunis to press for democratic elections.

Other Arab states should tackle reforms after Tunisia's "example", he said.

Hundreds and sometimes thousands of protesters in Tunis have kept up daily and mostly peaceful protests against the government since last week.

"Down with the government," the protesters chanted at the rally on Wednesday, which has defied a curfew and a ban on public assemblies.

Many of the protesters in Tunis arrived Sunday from impoverished regions in central Tunisia where social demonstrations against Ben Ali began last month.

The government has announced economic aid for the regions and compensation for the families of the dozens of people killed by Ben Ali's security forces.

On Wednesday it also eased the timing of a curfew, which will now operate between 10:00 pm and 04:00 am because of "improved security" conditions.

There were growing signs too of exasperation among many Tunisians over the chaotic upheaval that has followed in the wake of Ben Ali's downfall.

There have been protests in favour of the government and calls for a return to normal economic activity in various parts of the north African state.

Parents are also complaining that many schools and universities have remained shut despite orders to re-open because of strike action.

The regional offices of the main UGTT trade union, which has led the opposition to the new government, have been attacked in five cities.

Tunisia has announced unprecedented democratic freedoms but Ghannouchi, who has been prime minister since 1999, has said he will stay on until elections.

The government has said 78 people were killed during the anti-Ben Ali protests; on Wednesday it said that 74 prisoners also died in recent riots.

The justice minister said some 9,500 prisoners managed to escaped and 698 people have been arrested for recent incidents of looting and violence.
 

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