INDEPENDENT.CO.UK - 21/01/2011

Warning shots fired as Tunisia’s ruling party picketed

January 21, 2011

By Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis
Friday, 21 January 2011

The Tunisian army fired a barrage of warning shots in the capital yesterday as demonstrators converged on the headquarters of the longtime ruling party, from which ministers were quitting in a desperate attempt to keep their jobs.

Protesters climbed over the RCD party offices in central Tunis and dismantled the sign bearing its name.

Demonstrators have criticised the country’s new unity government for being mostly made up of old-guard politicians from the RCD, which was founded by ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power. Outside the gates of the party headquarters in Tunis, the army fired rounds into the air, scattering some protesters in the noisy but peaceful crowd. The building was being protected by an army tank in addition to numerous trucks and troops.

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

Soldiers were called in to protect strategic sites and public buildings, and have been manning checkpoints around the capital, but there have been no reports of them shooting at unarmed civilians since Ben Ali left.

It is unclear whether the army could emerge in a leadership role in this still unstable country. The crowd of protesters swelled to 1,500 people yesterday, 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, aged eight and four, 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 coloured pens to draw Tunisian flags on pieces of paper.

Another demonstrator said the 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, we will not tire from demonstrating and we will come out everyday if we have to," said Mohsen Kaabi, 55, a former military officer.

The caretaker government is now struggling to calm this moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West’s fight against terrorism.