Africa

Middle East protests: Major rally in Tunisia capital

Thousands of Tunisian demonstrators gather near the prime minister's office in Tunis, 25 February 2011
Image caption Friday's demonstration was the biggest since ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia last month after 23 years in power

Police have cleared crowds of Tunisians who marched through the capital Tunis on Friday demanding the resignation of interim PM Mohammed Ghannouchi, a long-time ally of the ousted leader.

It was the biggest rally since Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia last month after 23 years in power, after being toppled by weeks of unrest.

Mr Ghannouchi's interim government has promised elections by mid-July.

But crowds marched down Tunis' main avenue chanting: "Ghannouchi leave."

Later police fired tear gas and warning shots as they cleared the demonstrators from in front of the interior ministry .

Witnesses said one protester was injured when police fired warning shots at the crowd which some estimates said was 100,000-strong.

Mr Ghannouchi had served under Mr Ben Ali since 1999.

Assets seized

A cabinet statement released on Friday said the government "has decided that consultations with different political parties should not exceed mid-March... Elections will be organised at the latest in mid-July 2011".

It also announced that it had seized the financial and real estate assets belonging to 110 members of Ben Ali's entourage following similar action on 46 other members, TAP reported. It has already issued arrest warrants for Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi.

Mr Ghannouchi has introduced several reforms and removed some controversial cabinet members since Mr Ben Ali's departure, but demonstrators remain angry at the presence of figures from Ben Ali's authoritarian regime in the interim cabinet, fearing their revolution could be hijacked.

Since Sunday, they have been occupying the square next to the prime minister's office, where they have set up tents there and plastered the walls of the main government buildings with graffiti.

They have complained that the interim government and the commissions set up to manage the transition and investigate abuses during Mr Ben Ali's rule are not representative and are not conducting their work quickly or transparently enough.

Government officials say they are making progress and consulting widely, but have been struggling to deal with a barrage of pent up complaints from citizens.

Until Friday, the protests had been good-natured. The army, which is popular in Tunisia and credited with convincing Mr Ben Ali to step down, had been much more visible than the police.

Tunisians are divided between those who say the revolution still has far to go and are pushing for more radical, immediate reforms, and those who say the country needs to get back to work and wait for elections to have a new and fully legitimate government.

The fall of Ben Ali after 23 years in power sparked similar uprisings in the Arab world, including one that led to the downfall of long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 and another under way in Libya.

The 74-year-old ex-president is reportedly very ill in hospital after suffering a stroke. That government is now seeking to put Mr Ben Ali on trial on charges linked to the deaths of protesters during the uprising against his rule.

Although Mr Ben Ali was credited with creating political stability and strong economic growth, critics say he disregarded human rights and democratic values - claims he denies.