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Tunisia issues arrest warrant for ousted dictator

Tunisia has asked Interpol to help arrest ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other members of the family who fled the country during an uprising.
Image: A police officer fires a tear gas canister in Tunis
A police officer shoots a tear gas canister, while smoking a cigarette, at residents from the central Tunisian region of Sidi Bouzid Wednesday.Fethi Belaid / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Tunisia's government issued an international arrest warrant for ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Wednesday, accusing him of taking money out of the North African nation illegally.

Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after being driven from power this month by violent protests, was also being charged with illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said.

Chebbi spoke to reporters as Tunisian police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who have been pressuring the interim government to get rid of old guard ministers who served under Ben Ali. The clashes broke out in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, the capital. Acrid tear gas clouds engulfed hundreds and some responded by throwing stones at police.

Several injured protesters were carted away from the melee. Some tried to smash the windows of a police van, covering the ground with blood. Health officials would not respond to requests by The Associated Press seeking a casualty count.

Tunisia has asked Interpol, the French-based international police organization, to bring to Ben Ali to justice, Chebbi said. The country has a bilateral extradition agreement with Saudi Arabia. Interpol declined to comment.

Tunisia is also seeking the arrest of Ben Ali's wife, Leila, as well as other family members.

French media have reported that Leila left the country with millions in gold bullion. But Tunisia's new central bank governor, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, has denied that any gold was taken from the bank's vaults during the final days of Ben Ali's regime.

Ben Ali, his wife and their clan have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves: In France, where family members are believed to have assets ranging from apartments to racehorses, Paris prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into their holdings.

The former president fled Jan. 14 after 23 years in power, pushed out by weeks of protests driven by anger over joblessness, repression and corruption. His swift departure was followed by riots, looting and unrest.

On Wednesday, the justice minister highlighted the massive scope of that unrest: Some 11,029 prisoners — about a third of the country's prison population — were able to escape amid the chaos, he said.

Of those, 1,532 prisoners have returned behind bars, he said. Another 74 prisoners died in fires that broke out at several prisons.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, wrapped up a three-day visit in Tunis on Wednesday, rejecting speculation that the United States was involved in Ben Ali's removal.

"This is a revolution by Tunisians for Tunisians, and the United States was not involved," Feltman told reporters, crediting the interim government for greater openness and steps toward political reform.

The state news agency TAP reported that Tunisian officials were to announce changes Wednesday to the interim government but an opposition official told the AP the shakeup might take longer.

The caretaker government includes some former opposition leaders, but many top posts — including prime minister and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and the interior — were retained by Ben Ali cronies. Demonstrators want those old-guard lawmakers out.

The interim government also eased back on its nightly curfew, now setting it at 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., TAP reported.

Search for Ben Ali family
At the press conference, Chebbi named seven members of Ben Ali's family in Tunisian custody but said that Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Leila Trabelsi, and Sakher al-Materi, Ben Ali's son-in-law, had fled abroad.

He said the name of Leila's brother Belhassan Trabelsi had also been presented to Interpol.

Chebbi said six members of Ben Ali's presidential guard in custody, including Ali Seriati, would be tried for "conspiring against state security and inciting people against each other with weapons."

He said no legal action was in the works so far against Ben Ali's Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem who led efforts to crush the uprising when it broke in late December. Ben Ali fired him a few days before he fled.

Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution" has sparked scattered protests and civil disobedience in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Cairo, anti-government activists pelted police with firebombs and rocks in a second day of clashes Wednesday to demand the end of President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power. Police responded with tear gas, beatings and live ammunition.