Tunisia calms as government rejects old guard

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tunisia's new government said Wednesday it has freed all the country's political prisoners and also moved to track down assets stashed overseas by its deposed president and his widely disliked family.

Tensions on the streets appeared to be calming as the administration tried to show it was distancing itself from the old guard.

Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power. Later, about 30 youths in the capital broke a curfew and set up camp near the heavily guarded Interior Ministry, bringing mats, food and water for an overnight sit-in. Police didn't bother them.

In recent days, police had fired tear gas and clubbed protesters.

The U.N. said more than 100 people have died in the unrest that surrounded Ben Ali's ouster.

He fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power, and a caretaker government is now struggling to calm this moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West's fight against terrorism.

Some 33 members of Ben Ali's family have so far been taken into custody while trying to leave the country, as was the Senate president, national TV said.

Ben Ali's longtime prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, kept his post and is trying to convince Tunisians a new era has arrived — even if the composition of the interim government has many faces from the old guard.

Interim President Fouad Mebazaa went on television and promised to live up to the people's revolt, which he called a "revolution."

"Regarding security, you have certainly noticed that it has improved," he said. "We have discovered the leaders of the chaos, and have stopped the gangs and those who put fear in the hearts of people. The situation is moving toward stability."

Some were doubtful of promises of change.

Hafed al Maki, 50, who works at the country's largest insurance company, said he would not wait for the 60-day constitutional limit for new presidential elections to pass "because that is enough time for the old cronies to set their roots in and start their old ways again, thieving and taking our resources. No way that's happening again."

Opposition figures and the prime minister's office have said that the 60-day limit is unrealistically short, and the delay will more likely be six to seven months.

Swiss officials estimate Tunisian government officials have put about $620 million into Swiss banks, and the anti-corruption group Transparency International France and two other associations filed suit in Paris alleging corruption by Ben Ali and his wife.

A French government minister said the Tunisian central bank director, Taoufik Baccar, has resigned following widespread rumors that the deposed president's wife fled the country with a stash of gold. The central bank has denied an unsourced report in the French newspaper Le Monde that said Leila Trabelsi was believed to have taken 1.5 tons of gold out of the country, possibly bringing it to Switzerland.

But "rumors about that exist, and for that the president of the Central Bank of Tunisia has resigned," Nejib Chebbi, a longtime opponent who took a post in the unity government, told BBC World News.

Chebbi said an investigation would take place.

Tunisia's official TAP news agency also reported that the Central Bank had taken control of Banque Zitouna, a bank founded by a son-in-law of Ben Ali, to protect the deposits of accountholders and prevent a run on the bank.

The national prosecutor's office moved to investigate overseas bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives. His relations — especially his wife's family — were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.

The Swiss president said that her country's federal council agreed to freeze any assets in Switzerland belonging to Ben Ali, to help work up a possible criminal case over alleged stolen funds.

In Geneva, the United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said she was sending an "assessment team" to Tunisia in coming days, and estimated more than 100 deaths have occurred so far during the unrest in Tunisia.

Tunis' stock exchange, many shops, schools and universities remained closed and some workers have gone on strike. A curfew remains in place, thought the government shortened it as security improved.

Mustapha Ben Jafar, one of several new ministers who dropped out of the unity government Tuesday out of concern about the old guard's strong presence, met Wednesday with the prime minister to discuss conditions for a possible return.

He told The AP that the prime minister assured him all political prisoners have now been released, along with Islamists convicted under the country's draconian 2003 anti-terror laws — which were widely criticized by rights groups for being too sweeping and imprecise. It was unclear exactly how many such prisoners were freed.

In another effort to ease tensions, the government released 1,800 nonpolitical prisoners who had less than six months to serve, the official news agency reported.

Senate President Abdallah Kallel, a strong Ben Ali ally and a one-time powerful interior and defense minister, was taken into custody along with his wife as they tried to fly to Paris Wednesday, Tunisian national TV said. Security officials said without elaborating that the couple was barred from departing pending investigations.

Tunisia's unrest has rattled the economy, which had seen impressive growth in recent years. Moody's Investor Service downgraded Tunisia's government bond ratings Wednesday, citing "significant uncertainties" surrounding Tunisia's economic and political future.

Moody's cut the rating by one notch, to "Baa3" from "Baa2," and also downgraded its outlook to negative from stable. The new rating is one notch above "junk bond" status.


Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Maggie Michael in Cairo, and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.