By Dario Thuburn /AFP
TUNIS: The security chief of ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been arrested for plotting against the North African state’s new leadership, an official told AFP on Sunday.
“General Ali Seriati has been placed under arrest,” the official said.
Seriati was a key figure in the security apparatus put in place by the authoritarian Ben Ali and state television earlier reported that he is accused of plotting against the government and fomenting armed attacks.
“A judicial investigation has been opened against the former head of presidential security (Ali Seriati) and a group of his accomplices for plotting against the security of the state,” state television reported earlier on Sunday.
“A Tunis court has therefore issued arrest warrants against him and his accomplices,” the channel said, alleging that this powerful figure of the former regime had fomented armed attacks to destabilize the new leadership.
The news came as Tunisia’s main parties held talks and the government said it planned to investigate the killings of civilians during the wave of protests that led to Ben Ali’s abrupt departure after 23 years in power.
Around 1,500 protesters held a peaceful rally in the central Tunisian town of Regueb in which they condemned the political talks in the capital saying the new government would not be truly democratic, a local trade union leader said.
“We didn’t rise up for the formation of a unity government with a fake opposition,” he said, adding that demonstrators had chanted “Limited negotiations are a fake democracy”.
The army broke up the rally as protests are banned under the rules of a state of emergency declared in the country on Friday. Regueb was the scene of several violent protests in the run-up to the ouster of Ben Ali.
Representatives of two parties banned under Ben Ali — the Communist party and the Islamist Ennahdha party — were excluded from the government talks.
The head of Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, who lives in exile in London, told AFP earlier that he now intended to return to Tunisia.
Meanwhile some cafes re-opened in the centre of the capital Tunis — the scene of violent clashes in the days running up to Ben Ali’s abrupt departure on Friday — as the army continued its lockdown of the city center.
“There are major food shortages. We don’t have enough bread and flour. We risk a food crisis if this continues,” said Najla, who was filling her basket with meat and vegetables at the main market in Tunis.
Long queues were seen outside the few bakeries and groceries open.
A French photographer from the EPA agency hit in the head by a tear gas canister during the protests in central Tunis on Friday died of his injuries on Sunday, his relatives and a source at the French consulate said.
A source at the military hospital in Tunis earlier on Sunday also said that Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of the wife of former president Ben Ali, was stabbed and died on Friday — the same day that the president fled to Saudi Arabia.
The night in Tunis was punctuated by the crackle of gunfire and army helicopters circled overhead, as eyewitnesses reported people riding around in ambulances and cars in the suburbs shooting up homes at random.
Observers said the transition of power in Tunisia would be far from smooth.
“You can’t ignore the power of disruption of the presidential security apparatus that was headed up by General Ali Seriati. It has thousands of supporters of Ben Ali,” an informed source said on condition of anonymity.
Tunisia’s new acting president, speaker of parliament Foued Mebazaa, was sworn in on Saturday after Ben Ali resigned and fled Tunis following weeks of social protests in cities across the North African state.
Mebazaa said earlier that all Tunisians “without exception” would now be able to take part in national politics in the once tightly-controlled country and a presidential election is due to be held in two months’ time.
Mebazaa called for a unity government for “the greater national interest.”
There were chaotic scenes in and around Tunis on Saturday.
The main railway station was attacked and portraits of Ben Ali were torn down around the country. Most of the violence appeared to target the property of Ben Ali’s family and his residence in Hammamet was looted.
Soldiers were seen dragging dozens of suspected looters from their cars at gunpoint and loading them into trucks at checkpoints in the city, and smashed-up cars without number plates littered the streets of the suburbs.
In Monastir on the east coast at least 42 prisoners died in a fire Saturday after one inmate set his mattress alight — one of several attempted escape bids as inmates apparently sought to take advantage of the chaos.
Human rights groups say dozens of people were killed after food protests which began last month escalated into a popular social movement against the ruling elite.
International powers including European nations and the United States urged calm in Tunisia and called for democracy in the southern Mediterranean country after events that Tunisian internet users have dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution”.
The Arab League said the overthrow of Ben Ali was a “historic” event but many Arab governments were cautious about the dramatic events in Tunisia — the first ouster of a leader of the Arab world under pressure from street protests.