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Tunisia seeks arrest of former President Ben Ali and entourage

The interim government launches a $350-million public spending program apparently aimed at countering demands for its leaders' dismissal. A Cabinet reshuffle was expected Thursday.

January 27, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — Tunisia's interim government Wednesday issued arrest warrants for the country's deposed president and his entourage and launched a $350-million public spending program apparently aimed at countering demands for its leaders' dismissal.

A Cabinet reshuffling was expected to be announced by early Thursday, in part also to mollify critics unhappy with some officials' links to the government ousted this month.

A days-long protest by hundreds of people against the government of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a holdover from the previous government, turned violent Wednesday when activists tussled with police officers firing tear gas. A few injuries were reported.

Yet nearly two weeks after a popular uprising ousted longtime President Zine el Abidine ben Ali and inspired opposition activists throughout the Arab world, calm appeared to be returning to much of the country.

Authorities felt confident enough to push back the curfew by two hours, to 10 p.m. Many shops in the center of Tunis were opened, and laughing children and teens returning to school filled the sidewalks.

"It's the first time I'm doing my shopping," said Wiem Nasser, 24, a post office employee purchasing yogurt at the Monoprix supermarket in downtown Tunis, the capital. "I'm very happy. All we want is to go back to a normal life."

The interim government appeared to be attempting to reassure segments of the population that still question its legitimacy. Speaking at a news conference broadcast on public radio, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi announced international warrants for the arrest of Ben Ali and members of his family.

The former strongman, his wife and their relatives face accusations of funneling unspecified amounts of cash outside the country and contributing to the brief upsurge of violence after the uprising. The warrants have been forwarded to Interpol.

"Mr. Ben Ali and some of his family members are wanted in Tunisia on charges of alleged property theft and the illegal transfer of foreign currency," the Lyon, France-based Interpol said in a statement.

Ben Ali and his wife are believed to be in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. At least some of their relatives found refuge in Canada, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The government has moved quickly to attempt to placate the young rural men who sparked the uprising and were the primary victims of the former regime's violence during the weeks of unrest. The interim government said it would begin granting cash restitution to the families of those who were killed during the protests and compensate businesses damaged by police officers and rioters.

In addition, authorities have announced a plan to grant monthly $105 allowances and transportation discounts to unemployed rural college graduates in exchange for part-time volunteer work.

The government announced plans to spend $350 million to boost the economies of poorer areas away from the resort towns and industrialized cities along the Mediterranean coast. The head of the Central Bank of Tunisia said the government could afford to splurge.

"If they have a budget deficit of 3% as they claim, they would have some margin to take some measures," a Western diplomat in Tunis said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An official with a former opposition party that is now part of the government predicted that the Cabinet members heading the crucial defense, interior and foreign affairs ministries, now in the hands of former Ben Ali associates, would be replaced by "independent" figures drawn from "civil society." But he doubted that the changes would satisfy protesters.

"I think that the demonstrations will not stop," said Ahmad Bouazizi, a member of the leadership committee of the Progressive Democratic Party. "I see no problem that they continue so long as they do not harm the country."

daragahi@latimes.com

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