Tunisian minister suspends ex-ruling party

BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA - Associated Press

Tunisia's interior minister on Sunday suspended all activities of the country's former ruling party amid the most serious protests since the country's autocratic president fled into exile less than a month ago.

Fahrat Rajhi suspended all meetings of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, known as the RCD, and ordered all party offices or meeting places it owns closed — ahead of a demand to dissolve the party, a ministry statement said.

The RCD embodied the policies of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled into exile Jan. 14 after a month of nationwide anti-government protests. The step toward dissolving it represents an especially bold move.

The official TAP news agency, which carried the statement, said the measure was taken because of the "extreme urgency" of the situation, a reference to deadly weekend protests around Tunisia, and to "preserve the higher interests of the nation."

The announcement came hours after crowds pillaged, then burned a police station in the northwestern city of Kef a day after police shot dead at least two demonstrators. It was the worst violence in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years in power.

Protests have also erupted in other corners of the North African country, which is being run by a caretaker government.

Authorities have been removing traces of the Ben Ali regime, notably eliminating figures connected with the former ruling party — but not fast enough for many citizens. Protests were held in several towns to protest the nomination of new governors belonging to the RCD.

The party's activities were not just limited to politics. Under Ben Ali's reign, the party had tentacles in all aspects of Tunisian life. There are widespread fears that Ben Ali loyalists within the party are seeding anarchy to upset what Tunisians call their "people's revolution."

Among other distrusted entities is the police force, which instilled fear as it carried out the repressive policies of Ben Ali. The move by the interior minister, ultimately in charge of police, could amount to a double gesture to shore up the "people's revolution" in the eyes of many Tunisians.

Crowds attacked a police station in Kef on Sunday, pillaging documents and equipment and setting it afire, TAP reported. The army responded by encircling local government buildings to protect them, but tension was high.

On Saturday, Kef police officers fired at an angry crowd of 1,000 people attacking the police station with stones and firebombs, killing at least two people and injuring 17, the Interior Ministry has said. The crowd had tried to break into the station after the police chief "mishandled" a citizen, TAP said. Witnesses said the chief had slapped a woman.

The local police chief, Khaled Ghazouani, was placed under arrest, according to the ministry..

In Kebili, in the south, a youth hit by a tear gas canister was killed. He was among a group of demonstrators trying to attack a National Guard post to protest the appointment of a local governor, the news agency reported.

In the mining town of Gafsa in the center-west, the newly appointed governor, Mohamed Gouider, was forced to leave his new post in a military vehicle provided by the army amid a large demonstration by crowds demanding his departure and a "total rupture with the symbols of the old regime," TAP reported.

Similar demonstrations were held in several other towns, from Sfax, the southern capital, to Bizerte, 35 miles (60 kilometers) north of Tunis.

Two opposition parties present in the interim government denounced the naming of regional governors without prior consultation and, for the Democratic Progressive Party, failing to assure a "climate of confidence between the administration and citizens."

The caretaker government is in its second life after being forced by protesters to drop key ministers long linked to the RCD.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime figure in the RCD, maintained his post but dropped his membership. The party's executive bureau resigned.

In an especially sensitive weekend protest, hundreds of people took to the streets in the central-western town of Sidi Bouzid — where the uprising got its start in December.

Hundreds of people protested Saturday after two inmates in a neighborhood police station were killed in a fire late Friday, TAP reported.

An investigation into the cause of the blaze was ordered, but Rajhi, the interior minister, speaking Saturday on the private Nessma TV station, left open the possibility that the fire was the work of "infiltrated persons" — a reference to the RCD.

Sidi Bouzid was the site of the start of Tunisia's uprising, which unfolded with the Dec. 17 self-immolation attempt by an unemployed man whose fruit and vegetable cart was confiscated by police because the man, Mohamed Bouazizi, had no permit. A police woman reportedly slapped him in an ultimate insult. Bouazizi, who later died of his burns, has become a hero in Tunisia.