Protests flare in Tunisia: Army declares Bardo Square ‘closed military zone’
TUNIS - The Tunisian army blocked off a square where rival protesters had confronted each other in Tunis on Monday, declaring it a "closed military zone" to try to stave off rising unrest.
Tensions have been growing over opposition efforts to oust the Islamist-led government following last week's assassination of a leftist politician, the second such killing in six months.
After protesters clashed early on Monday in the capital's central Bardo square, where Tunisia's Constituent Assembly is located, the army sealed it off with barbed wire and fencing.
In the southern city of Sidi Bouzid, angry protesters tried to storm municipal offices to stop employees from going to work, residents said, sparking clashes with supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party, which leads the transitional government.
The army intervened to protect the offices and police fired tear gas, but residents said thousands of demonstrators were still gathering in the southern city, the cradle of the revolt that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
"Now many of the protesters are coming in carrying batons and it looks like the situation is going to escalate because both sides are standing firm," one resident, Mahdi al-Hurshani, said by telephone.
Tunisians fear they may be plunging into one of the worst crises in their political transition since Ben Ali was forced to flee by an uprising that inspired unrest across the Arab world.
Opposition leaders say they might set up a rival "salvation government", an idea they will discuss later on Monday.
The secular opposition, emboldened by the Egyptian army's ousting of an Islamist president this month, is now rejecting all concessions and reconciliation efforts by the government.
The unrest has erupted just weeks before the transitional Constituent Assembly was set to complete a draft of a new constitution. The opposition now demands that the 217-member body be dissolved. Seventy lawmakers have left it and set up a sit-in outside the Assembly offices in Bardo square.
Islamist-led government gathered for emergency talks on Monday. The government talks had been due to start at 0800 GMT but ministers were late arriving and the meeting had yet to get under way at 1100 GMT, a correspondent reported.
A meeting of the 500,000-member strong General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) that was due to convene in the afternoon "to decide the fate" of the country, was also delayed, its secretary general Sami Tahri said.
"The UGTT will carry out its historic role to defend the right of Tunisians to protest peacefully... and assume its responsibilities vis-a-vis the crisis," Tahri said, adding that the meeting would start in the evening.
On Friday, the unions shut down much of the country for a strike to mourn the leftist politician, Mohamed Brahmi, who was assassinated last week.
France called for restraint and said it was worried by events in Tunisia, where it was once the colonial power, urging the authorities to ensure an open transition to democracy.
"(France) supports the transition process under way in solidarity with all of the Tunisian people," said a foreign ministry statement. "It urges the Tunisian authorities to see this transition through to the end, in a spirit of dialogue and respect for the roadmap."
The army fenced off Bardo square after rival protesters threw rocks at each other and police dispersed them. Opposition sources said security forces beat one of the lawmakers who had quit the Constituent Assembly. He was taken to hospital.
"The prime minister will be held accountable for any drop of blood spilled in the Bardo sit-in," opposition figure Manji Rahawi said.
Both protest groups vowed to return to Bardo, local media said. Opposition supporters were already gathering nearby, and Ennahda partisans vowed to return following afternoon prayers.
The government says Brahmi's assailants used the same weapon that killed another secular leader, Chokri Belaid, on February 6.
Its critics say it has not done enough to investigate or stop the attacks it has blamed on hardline Salafist militants.
Many joining the swelling street protests cite anger with the instability in Tunisia as well as economic stagnation.
Others are frustrated that a constitution, promised one year after the 2011 uprising, has yet to be completed and are suspicious of the Islamist-led transitional government.