Tunisia gripped by uncertainty

Former interior minister arrested as armed gangs roam streets of the capital, causing residents to barricade inside.

Tunisians form local armed groups to defend checkpoints 2
Tunisians holding metal bars, sticks and a butcher’s knife stand guard a checkpoint near the capital [AFP]

Tunisia’s former interior minister, the man many held responsible for a brutal police crackdown on widespread protests, has been arrested in his home town in the north of the country.

Rafik Belhaj, who was the top official in charge of the police force, was arrested in Beja on Sunday afternoon. Belhaj had been dismissed from his position on Wednesday in what would turn out to be one of ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s final efforts to placate public anger with his leadership.

Separately, Tunisian state television announced that General Ali Seryati, the former head of Ben Ali’s security service, will appear in court to face charges of threatening national security and provoking armed violence.

Armed militias have taken to the streets of Tunisia following the toppling of Ben Ali, sowing fear among the population as the country’s new leadership attempts to bring order and form a coalition government.

Looting and deadly prison riots have erupted throughout the country after mass protests forced Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987, to flee to Saudi Arabia.

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“There is a real sense of fear right now on the streets,” said Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, the capital.

Many residents, running out of bread, milk and petrol, have decided to arm themselves and barricade their homes, Moshiri said. Some are forming local groups to defend their own neighbourhoods.

Three different armed groups appear to be attempting to assert power, she said: Police, security forces from the interior ministry, and irregular militias allied with Ben Ali’s former regime. Among Tunisia’s population of roughly 10 million people, 250,000 are in the police force, she said.

“People are telling us right now they trust the army far more than they do the police,” Moshiri said.

Adding to concerns, around 1,000 prisoners were reported to have escaped, possibly with the aid of the prison direction, during a major disturbance at a penitentiary.

It was not the only incident at a prison following the country’s historic upheaval; several prison breaks or raids by outside groups were reported to have resulted in casualties. At least 42 inmates died in a fire at the Fatouma Bourguiba prison in Montasir, a town around 160 km south of the capital.

Opposition figure to return

As Tunisia attempts to reconstruct its government, the exiled head of one of its leading opposition parties has announced his intent to return to the country.

Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Nahdha (Renaissance) party, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that he and other leading figures would “return shortly” to Tunisia.

The Renaissance party, formed in 1988, never gained legal status under Ben Ali because of a law prohibiting political parties based on religion. According to human rights groups, its members have long suffered persecution and torture.

Ghannouchi said the party should be recognised and said that it is ready to take part in a coalition government.

Ben Ali family member killed

On Sunday, the AFP news agency reported that a member of the president’s extended family had died of a knife wound two days earlier.

Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Ben Ali’s wife, died in a military hospital in Tunis, a staff member told the AFP. He was the first person in the president’s extended family reported to have died as a result of the uprising.

Salim Shayboub, Ben Ali’s son in law, also reportedly has been arrested.

Trabelsi was an influential businessman and became more widely known after he was mentioned in a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks that said he was reported to have stolen a yacht belonging to the chairman of the powerful French financial firm Lazard.

The new president

Fouad Mebezaa, the speaker of parliament, was sworn in as the country’s new president on Saturday and promised to create a unity government that could include the long-ignored opposition. It was the second change of power in the North African nation in less than 24 hours.

After Ben Ali fled on Friday, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he had taken power in accordance with the constitution.

Amid the political instability, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station in Tunis. Soldiers traded fire with unidentified armed men in front of the interior ministry.

“If the interim government doesn’t quickly implement measures to reduce the level of unemployment and increase standards of living, we are going to see more of these protests,” Ayesha Sabavala, deputy editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.

Abdel Karim Kebiri, a former North Africa specialist for the International Labour Organisation, said he believed Tunisia has the institutions to boost employment, but that the private sector lost all credibility under Ben Ali because of widespread corruption.

The widely-followed Tunisian blog Nawaat posted video of what it said were army troops confronting armed militia

Troops were patrolling the capital on Saturday and a state of emergency was in force.

The Reuters news agency reported that squads of men in civilian clothes were driving through Tunis at high speed, shooting randomly at buildings and people.

Soldiers and plainclothes security personnel dragged dozens of suspected looters out of their cars at gunpoint and took them away in lorries, according to a report from the AFP news agency.

“The army is all over the place in Tunis, they are trying to check cars and control people going by,” Youssef Gaigi, a blogger and activist based in Tunisia, said.

Black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket in Ariana, north of the capital, as it was torched and emptied.

Soldiers fired warning shots in vain to try to stop the looters, and shops near the main bazaar were also attacked.

Riots target Ben Ali family interests

Some rioters appeared to be targeting businesses owned by members of Ben Ali’s family. In Tunis, a branch of the Zeitouna bank founded by Ben Ali’s son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by Kia, Fiat and Porsche – carmakers distributed in Tunisia by members of the ruling family.

Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents on the capital’s outskirts, describing attacks by knife-wielding assailants.

Amid the turmoil, Tunisians have organised themselves to protect their neighbourhoods, Amine Ghali, a democracy advocate in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.

“There is a serious security issue, but people are getting organised. They are standing in front of their neighbourhoods, forming neighbourhood committees … they are trying to be as calm as possible and trying to help the military,” he said.

Residents of some Tunis neighbourhoods set up barricades and organised overnight patrols to deter rioters. In El Menzah neighbourhood, dozens of men and boys armed with baseball bats and clubs were taking turns on patrol – just as a broadcast on Tunisian television had urged citizens to do.

“This isn’t good at all. I’m very afraid for the kids and myself,” Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three in outer Tunis,” said.

‘Militia’ fears

There are fears that some of the violence is being carried out by armed factions allied to Ben Ali, with Reuters quoting an unnamed military source as saying: “Ben Ali’s security is behind what is happening.”

Gaigi, who had been part of the protests that brought down Ben Ali, indicated that the army’s presence was requiredf because the police force had broken down.f

“Several militias, which are actually doing some of the looting are part of the ministry of the interior, or police members, and they are co-ordinated by heads of police and intelligence in Tuisia,” he said.

“We heard the army have captured some of these people but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Deadly prison fire

In a sign that Ben Ali’s rule was over, workers were taking down a portrait of the former president outside the headquarters of his RCD party on Mohamed V Avenue in the centre of Tunis.

Meanwhile, a fire on Saturday at a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told The Associated Press news agency.

Witnesses told Al Jazeera that other prisoners had escaped and reports said that some prisoners had been shot as they made their escape bid. 

In Mahdia, further down the coast, inmates set fire to their mattresses in protest. Soldiers opened fire, killing five inmates, a local official said.

Breakouts were also reported at three other prisons and a report from The Associated Press news agency said that an official at one facility had let 1,000 inmates escape following protests at the prison.

Thousands of tourists have been evacuated from the Mediterranean nation following the unrest.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies