Tunisia political crisis deepens

TUNIS - Tunisia's political crisis is deepening after the assassination of a leading opposition leader earlier this week.

The killing of anti-Islamist politician Chokri Belaid sparked violent protests. The prime minister then announced plans for a new, technocratic government.

But the ruling Islamist party Ennahda rejected the move, saying Hamadi Jebali "did not ask the opinion of his party".

Meanwhile, police have fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Tunis and in the central town of Gafsa, reports say.

The Gafsa demonstrators, who were observing a symbolic funeral for Chokri Belaid, rallied outside the governor's office, throwing stones and petrol bombs at the police.

In a separate development, lawyers and judges across Tunisia have reportedly launched a two-day strike in response to Wednesday's killing.

Earlier, four opposition groups - including Mr Belaid's Popular Front - announced that they were pulling out of the country's national constituent assembly in protest.

The country's largest trade union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, called a general strike for Friday.

Reacting to the escalating crisis, France said it would close its schools in the capital Tunis on Friday and Saturday.

Mr Belaid's killing has brought to a new pitch a long-simmering political crisis in Tunisia, with secularists and liberals accusing the Islamists of amassing too much power, the BBC's Sebastian Usher says.

Ennahda denies opposition claims that it was behind the assassination in Tunis.

"We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now," party Vice-President Abdelhamid Jelassi said on Thursday.

Raouf Khalsi in Le Temps warns that "those well-meaning people in power have no doubt gauged the weight of Wednesday's wave of anger across the republic. If they watch that spontaneous popular phenomenon without learning lessons from it, it is because they are setting themselves against the march of history. This time the people will not give in".

In privately-owned Assabah, Rafiq bin Abdallah argues for the need "for a firm, decisive and revolutionary stand against violence. He writes: "We must unite in a government of national salvation and send a strong message to those behind Belaid's assassination: we will not despair, we will unite for Tunisia's sake to reach the goals of our noble revolution, and we will not be dragged towards more bloodshed and violence."

Referring to the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Mursal al-Kusaybi, in al-Wasat, writes: "You can't help noticing the many question marks surrounding those who cause chaos, violence and bloodshed with a clear intention to spoil the spring and turn it into a Syrian-style winter."

An editorial in pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi says "Tunisia yesterday woke up to a major catastrophe... This assassination is strange to Tunisia and its civilised and peaceful people, especially at a time like this when the country is going through a difficult phase filled with division and political polarisation."

"We will continue discussions with others parties about forming a coalition government," he added.

Ennahda spokesman Abdelhamid Aljallasi later added that party members had not been informed of the prime minister's decision before he announced it.

Late on Wednesday, Mr Jebali said he would dismiss the current cabinet and form a government of "competent nationals without political affiliation".

The new ministers would have a mandate "limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time", the prime minister said in a nationally televised address.

The killing of Mr Belaid - the first political assassination in Tunisia since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 - sparked angry protests across Tunisia.

He was shot dead at close range on his way to work. The attacker fled on the back of a motorcycle.

Thousands of people later rallied outside the interior ministry, many chanting slogans urging the government to stand down and calling for a new revolution.

In the centre of Tunis, a police officer was killed during clashes between police and opposition supporters protesting against Mr Belaid's death.

Mr Belaid was a respected human rights lawyer, and a left-wing secular opponent of the government which took power after the overthrow of long-serving ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Current President Moncef Marzouki said the assassination should not affect Tunisia's revolution.

"There are many enemies of our peaceful revolution. And they're determined to ensure it fails," he said.

Referring to Mr Belaid as a "long-standing friend", he said his "hateful assassination" was a threat.

"This is a letter being sent to us that we will refuse to open," the president said.

Mr Marzouki also announced that he was cutting short a visit to France and cancelling a trip to Egypt to return home to deal with the crisis.

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