Tunisia seeks to track deposed leader’s assets

TUNISIA’S interim leadership promised a “complete break with the past” and freed political prisoners yesterday in efforts to appease street protesters who want a total purge of the old guard from a unity government.

Five days after veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with some of his wealthy entourage, former political allies including the prime minister were trying to coax opposition figures into a national unity government which can restore order and oversee promised free elections.

Tunisia and Switzerland also moved to track down assets believed squirrelled away overseas by deposed former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his deeply resented family, who fled the country amid violent protests.

More than 100 people have died in about a month of unrest that preceded and followed Ben Ali’s ouster, the UN said. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters led a peaceful — if noisy — rally in central Tunis, demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power.

The new march was less tense than those of recent days, when police f clubbed protesters.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power, and a caretaker government run by his longtime prime minister is now struggling to calm tensions. The fragile state of the government highlights Tunisians’ questions about who is in control of this moderate Muslim nation, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West’s fight against terrorism.

Ben Ali’s longtime prime minister kept his post and is trying to convince Tunisians a new era has arrived — even if the composition of the interim government has many faces from the old guard.

Tunisia’s official TAP news agency reported that the prosecutor’s office moved to investigate overseas bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives. His relatives — especially his wife’s family — were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Swiss president said yesterday that her country’s federal council agreed to freeze any assets in Switzerland belonging to Ben Ali, to help work up a possible criminal case over alleged stolen funds.

In Geneva, the United Nations’ human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said she was sending an “assessment team” to Tunisia in coming days, and estimated more than 100 deaths have occurred so far during the unrest in Tunisia.

Tunis’ stock exchange, many shops, schools and universities were closed and some workers have gone on strike.

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