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Gun Battles Break Out, With New Tunisian Leadership To Form Government


Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi (left) addresses the nation on state television, flanked by the interim president, Fouad Mebazza
There have been heavy gun battles near the presidential palace in Tunisia, some 15 kilometers north of the capital, Tunis, between the military and presidential guards loyal to ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Reuters and The Associated Press are citing residents and witnesses as reporting heavy and sustained gunfire in the area around the palace.

This violence comes after Tunisian state television reported earlier that security forces killed several gunmen in Tunis this evening.

State television said some of the gunmen were on rooftops and fired on security forces. State television quoted police sources as saying four people were arrested; all of them reportedly had German passports.

The gun battle interrupted what had been a relatively calm day in Tunis. The country's new leadership is set to form a government of national unity days after the country's president was ousted following a month of antigovernment street protests.

Interim President Fouad Mebazza, sworn in on January 15, asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a coalition government, which will reportedly include some opposition parties.

Opposition leaders, including Najib Chebbi and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, have told news agencies that they were contacted by the prime minister.

"Mr. Ghannouchi proposed that our party participate in the formation of a government of national unity that would be open to democratic forces, which means our party and two others," Chebbi told French media.

Chebbi said he demanded parliamentary elections be held within six or seven months.

Another Tunisian opposition leader, the exiled head of the Islamist Party, Rached Ghannouchi, has told reporters he is planning to return home within weeks.

Under the Tunisian Constitution, presidential elections must be held within two months.

Tanks On The Streets

Some family members of the ousted president,
The former president has fled to Saudi Arabia
as well as the head of presidential security have reportedly been arrested by government forces.

Ben Ali, who ruled the country since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 as the antigovernment protests intensified.

The unprecedented demonstrations initially broke out in mid-December, with protesters complaining about unemployment, corruption, and economic hardship. Dozens were killed in the protests when government troops cracked down on protesters.

Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, have called on Tunisia to hold free and fair elections. Merkel said the EU would support a "true democracy" in Tunisia.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Ben Ali's departure could give the Tunisian people a say in how they are governed.

Arab Reaction

Tunisian events are being closely watched in the rest of the Arab world. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs were flooded with messages of support and congratulations to the Tunisian people.

Some opposition politicians in the Arab world have predicted the antigovernment street protests that led to the ouster of the autocratic president could set an example in the region and embolden others.

The Tunisian army is patrolling the streets in the capital
An opposition lawmaker in Kuwait, Ahmad al-Saadun, told reporters that the Tunisian events taught a "lesson for all the peoples of the region."

"The revolt of the Tunisian people against tyranny led to the escape of the biggest tyrant and enemy of freedom and one of the allies of [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein," Saadun told the AFP news agency.

Walid al-Tabtabai, another opposition lawmaker in Kuwait, has been quoted as saying, "All regimes that oppress their peoples and fight Arab and Islamic identity will meet the same fate."

A small protest continued on January 16 outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo. Protesters drew parallels between Egypt and neighboring Tunisia, saying both countries suffer from corruption, poverty, and lack of freedom under their long-ruling autocratic presidents.

Riot police were present in huge numbers. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling the country for three decades.

Activists in Bahrain were denied official permission to hold a similar rally outside the Tunisian Embassy in the Persian Gulf state.

Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, another long-serving ruler in the region, criticized events in Tunisia, saying he was "pained" by the development.

"Tunisia now lives in fear," Qaddafi said. "Families could be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or the American Revolution."

The turmoil in Tunisia has prompted many foreigners to flee the North African country, a popular holiday destination for many. The country is known for its Mediterranean beach resorts and is considered a relatively affordable tourist destination.

The United States has advised its citizens against nonessential travel to the country.

written by Farangis Najibullah and based on agency reports
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