'Liberation caravan' heads to Tunis

Hundreds of demonstrators defy nighttime curfew to travel from Sidi Bouzid, where uprising began, to the capital.

    Police, national guard members and firemen have begun to distance themselves from the government [Reuters]

    Hundreds of Tunisians have defied a nighttime curfew and travelled hundreds of kilometres in what they call a "Liberation Caravan" to join protesters in the country's capital, where anger at the interim government continues to grow.

    The protesters began marching on Saturday night from Menzel Bouzaiane, a small town in the same province as Sidi Bouzid - the site of the self-immolation suicide attempt that set off a month of protests and ultimately ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

    The crowd walked on foot for about 50km before boarding buses to Tunis, where they arrived on Sunday and began assembling in front of the interior ministry - the site of many anti-government demonstrations.

    As more people continue to file into the capital from Sidi Bouzid, they are expected to begin demonstrating in front of the prime minister's office.

    Meanwhile, the country's state news agency reported on Sunday  that allies of  Ben Ali's allies - Abdelaziz bin Dhia, Ben Ali's spokesman and chief adviser, and Abdallah Qallal, a former interior minister and head of Tunisia's appointed upper parliamentary house - have been placed under house

    The agency also said police were searching for Abdelwahhab Abdalla, Ben Ali's political adviser, who has disappeared.

    Police join in protests

    On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators, including police officers, lawyers and students, again took to the streets of Tunis to protest

    At least 2,000 police officers participated, according to the Associated Press news agency. They were joined by members of the national guard and fire departments.

    Crowds gathered in front of the office of Mohamed Ghannouchi, the interim prime minister, and on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main street of Tunis.

    The rally was the latest in a month of turmoil that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's longstanding ruler, sending him into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14.

    While many demonstrators are continuing to demand the dissolution of the interim government, the police officers who have joined the protests are seeking better working conditions and an improvement in what they call an unfair media portrayal.

    Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, said that the police officers marched with protesters, wearing red armbands in solidarity with the marching crowds.

    "They said they want to be with people now, they want to be part of the revolution," she said.

    "They no longer want to be persecuted - they say, 'Please don't blame us for the deaths of the protesters'."

    At the prime minister's office, Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reported that protesters broke through barricades but no violence occurred there.

    He reported that the anti-riot squad pleaded with the crowd, saying: 'Do whatever you want to do but please don't storm the office of the prime minister. That is a red line."

    But protesters were already starting to break the barricades by late afternoon.

    Masoud Romdhani, a trade union activist who was at the demonstration, told Al Jazeera that the protests must continue in order to oust entirely the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the former ruling party.

    Many Tunisians are angry over the inclusion of several prominent members of Ben Ali's administration in the new interim cabinet.

    Romdhani said labour activists feel that "nothing is done" until the RCD is removed.

    Countering such criticism, Sami Zaoui, the Tunisian secretary for communication technologies, told Al Jazeera that "civil society" and opposition parties account for more than two-thirds of the transitional government.

    He also rejected the view that Ghannouchi was "in a difficult situation" and played down the ongoing protests as "very local demonstrations".

    "We cannot say that the entire country is currently demonstrating," Zaoui said.

    Dissolution demanded

    Thousands of protesters have been holding daily protests, demanding the dissolution of the interim administration, since Ben Ali fled earlier this month.

    In an effort to dampen the anger, Ghannouchi, who is a former ally of Ben Ali, pledged to quit politics after elections that he says will be held as soon as possible.

    In an interview on Tunisian television on Friday, Ghannouchi said he would leave power after a transition phase that leads to legislative and presidential elections "in the shortest possible timeframe."

    Despite resigning his RCD membership, he has been struggling to restore calm under a new multiparty government that the opposition complains retains too many members of the party. Fouad Mebazaa. the interim president, also resigned his RCD membership.

    Follow Al Jazeera's coverage of the
    turmoil in Tunisia

    "My role is to bring my country out of this temporary phase and even if I am nominated I will refuse it and leave politics," Ghannouchi said.

    He did not specify when the elections would be held, though the constitution requires a presidential vote within 60 days. He said the elections must be a success "to show the world that our country has a civilisation".

    Ghannouchi also said that all of the assets held abroad by Ben Ali's regime had been frozen and would be returned to Tunisia after an investigation.

    Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Tunis, said that Ghannouchi also announced that the state would provide compensation to those who died during the uprising, as well as their families.

    The army and the justice department have been ordered to preserve any documents and evidence that can be gathered during the unrest in order to investigate the old government, our correspondent said.

    The transitional government has also said that it would lift a ban on political groups, including the Islamist al-Nahda (Renaissance) party.

    The exiled leader of the formerly banned party, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that al-Nahda is democratic and should not be feared and rejected any comparison between him and Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

    "We are a moderate Islamic movement, a democratic movement based on democratic ideals in ... Islamic culture. Some people pull Khomeini's robe over me, while I am no Khomeini nor a Shia," he said.

    Mohamed Ghannouchi, the interim prime minister[(not related to Rachid al-Ghannouchi] has said that the Nahda leader cannot return to Tunisia until a 1991 prison sentence is lifted. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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