11:40am

Thu January 20, 2011
Africa

Tunisia's Leaders Resign From Ruling Party

All of Tunisia's government ministers who belonged to the longtime ruling party quit their memberships Thursday in a bid to distance themselves from the country's ousted president and quell unrest in the capital, where the army fired warning shots to break up protests.

Demonstrators converged on the RCD party headquarters in central Tunis, dismantling the sign bearing its name and carrying off pieces of its letters. Outside the gates, the army fired about 10 rounds into the air, scattering some protesters in the noisy but peaceful crowd.

While police repeatedly shot at protesters in the weeks leading up to Ben Ali's ouster, killing several, the army has been playing more of a peacekeeping role since it was brought in to try to restore order last week.

Thursday's crowd of protesters swelled to about 2,000 people, many chanting "The people want the government down!" Others waved baguettes to symbolize the need to end food shortages.

One father, Ahmad al-Ouni, brought his children ages 8 and 4 to the demonstration with a backpack of snacks and juice. "I want them to smell their free country and to see the new Tunis without fear," al-Ouni said while his children used colored pens to draw Tunisian flags on paper.

Critics say the country's new government is too stacked with Cabinet officials who were allied with autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced out last week after 23 years in power. One demonstrator said the street protests will continue until all ministers and members of parliament with links to the RCD are removed from power.

"This revolution cannot be stolen from us and we will not tire from demonstrating, and we will come out every day if we have to," said Mohsen Kaabi, 55, a former military officer.

All eight Cabinet ministers who belonged to the party relinquished their affiliations Thursday, the official TAP news agency said. The attempts to pacify public anger come a day after similar moves by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and interim President Fouad Mebazaa.

The interim government also has released all of the country's political prisoners to ease the tensions.

Even so, it remained unclear whether the latest concessions could assuage the popular anger that deposed Ben Ali and is now directed at the caretaker government.

"We're in a critical period now, but we're going to come through it," protester Bessim Zitouni, 28, told NPR. "Tunisians have great solidarity. And that will see us through. I know we're going to have a great future."

State media reported that at least 33 members of Ben Ali's family have been taken into custody as they tried to flee the country for alleged "crimes against Tunisia."

"Investigations will be carried out in order for them to face justice," according to a statement read on national television.

Prosecutors have also said they are investigating overseas bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, along with other relatives.

Swiss officials froze all assets tied to Ben Ali's family on Wednesday, estimating that Tunisian officials have put about $620 million into Swiss banks. In Paris, the watchdog group Transparency International France and two other associations filed a lawsuit alleging corruption by Ben Ali and Trabelsi, who fled to Saudi Arabia after his ouster.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has set conditions for Ben Ali to remain in exile there.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said no political activity of any kind will be allowed and affirmed the kingdom's support for the Tunisian people. The Tunisian revolt has wide support in the Arab world, especially with Saudi Arabia's young blogging community — which was highly critical of the government's decision to offer safe haven to Ben Ali.

U.N. human rights chief Navanethem Pillay said Thursday that she planned to send a team to Tunisia to assess the human rights situation. She said at least 100 people have been killed in the unrest.

"Human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia's problems," Pillay said. "Therefore human rights must be right at the forefront of the solutions to those problems."

With reporting from Lisa Schlein in Geneva and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Tunis and Deborah Amos in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.