Tunisia calms as govt rejects old guard

Tunisia’s new government began releasing prisoners today and moved to track down assets stashed overseas by its deposed president and his widely disliked family.

Tunisia’s new government began releasing prisoners today and moved to track down assets stashed overseas by its deposed president and his widely disliked family.

Tensions on the streets appeared to be calming as the administration tried to show it was distancing itself from the old guard.

Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power.

Later, about 30 youths in the capital broke a curfew and set up camp near the heavily guarded Interior Ministry, bringing mats, food and water for an overnight sit-in. Police did not bother them.

In recent days, officers have fired tear gas and clubbed protesters.

The UN said more than 100 people have died in the unrest which surrounded the ousting of the president.

Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power, and a caretaker government is now struggling to calm the moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West’s fight against terrorism.

Mr Ben Ali’s long-time prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, 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.

Interim President Fouad Mebazaa went on television and promised to live up to the people’s revolt, which he called a “revolution”.

“Regarding security, you have certainly noticed that it has improved,” he said. “We have discovered the leaders of the chaos, and have stopped the gangs and those who put fear in the hearts of people. The situation is moving toward stability.”

Some were doubtful about such promises of change.

Hafed al Maki, 50, who works at the country’s largest insurance company, said he would not wait for the 60-day constitutional limit for new presidential elections to pass “because that is enough time for the old cronies to set their roots in and start their old ways again, thieving and taking our resources. No way that’s happening again.”

Opposition figures and the prime minister’s office have said the 60-day limit is unrealistically short, and the delay is more likely to be six to seven months.

Swiss officials estimate Tunisian government officials have put about $620m (€460m) into Swiss banks, and the anti-corruption group Transparency International France and two other associations filed a suit in Paris alleging corruption by Mr Ben Ali and his wife.

A French government minister said the Tunisian central bank director has resigned following widespread rumours that the deposed president’s wife fled the country with a stash of gold.

The central bank has denied an unsourced report in French newspaper Le Monde which said Leila Trabelsi was believed to have taken 1.5 tons of gold out of the country, possibly taking it to Switzerland.

But “rumours about that exist, and for that the president of the Central Bank of Tunisia has resigned”, Nejib Chebbi, a long-time opponent who took a post in the unity government, told BBC World News.

Mr Chebbi said an investigation would take place.

Tunisia’s official TAP news agency also reported that the Central Bank had taken control of Banque Zitouna, a bank founded by a son-in-law of Mr Ben Ali, to protect the deposits of account-holders and prevent a run on the bank.

The national prosecutor’s office moved to investigate overseas bank accounts, property and other assets held by Mr Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives. His relations – especially his wife’s family – were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.

The Swiss president said her country’s federal council agreed to freeze any assets in Switzerland belonging to Mr 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 would be sending an “assessment team” to Tunisia, and estimated that more than 100 deaths have occurred so far during the unrest in Tunisia.

Tunis’s stock exchange, many shops, schools and universities remained closed and some workers have gone on strike. A curfew remains in place, though the government shortened it as security improved.

In a further effort to ease tensions, the government moved ahead today with plans to release 1,800 prisoners who had less than six months to serve, the official news agency reported. It was not immediately clear what prompted the release, and the report suggested they were not political prisoners.

The unrest has shaken Tunisia’s economy, which had seen impressive growth in recent years.

Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Tunisia’s government bond ratings today, citing “significant uncertainties” surrounding Tunisia’s economic and political future.

Moody’s cut the rating by one notch, to “Baa3” from “Baa2,” and also downgraded its outlook to negative from stable. The new rating is one notch above “junk bond” status.

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