Tunisia calms as government rejects old guard

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — 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.


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