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Thousands rally against Tunisia's new leaders

Thousands rallied in Tunisia on Saturday after the main trade union called for a new government of "national salvation," as the prime minister promised the first democratic elections since independence.

world Updated: Jan 22, 2011 20:08 IST

Thousands rallied in Tunisia on Saturday after the main trade union called for a new government of "national salvation," as the prime minister promised the first democratic elections since independence.

Demonstrators in Tunis were joined by dozens of members of the police, discredited because of the bloody crackdown on protests against president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that ultimately led to his ouster on January 14.

Officers said they were on the side of the protestors and demanded higher pay.

Some of the officers briefly blocked a car carrying interim president Foued Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament, but it was later allowed to pass.

Public assemblies of more than three people are officially banned under a state of emergency that remains in place along with a night-time curfew.

Mebazaa has promised a "total break" with the old regime and the government has unveiled key reforms such as the release of all political prisoners and the legalisation of political parties, but daily protests have continued.

Many Tunisians are angry at the inclusion of old regime figures like Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi in the new government and want the break-up of the former ruling party, which has dominated Tunisia for decades.

The rallies in Tunis and in several towns in central Tunisia have passed off mostly peacefully and have drawn fewer people than the mass protests and violent clashes seen in the final days of Ben Ali's regime.

Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind a country in chaos.

Ghannouchi, who has kept his post despite the revolt, vowed to quit politics after holding the north African country's first free and fair polls since independence from France in 1956, in comments broadcast yesterday.

"After the transition, I will retire from political life," said Ghannouchi, who has been prime minister since 1999. He also said that like many Tunisians he too was "afraid" during Ben Ali's 23-year regime.

"All undemocratic laws will be scrapped" during the transition to democracy, he added, mentioning in particular electoral, anti-terrorism and media laws.

He did not give a precise date for when elections would be held, although he has previously said there will be a vote within six months. Under the constitution elections should officially take place within two months.

"The prime minister is sticking to the same tone," said opposition leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty party, who had been appointed as health minister in the new government but pulled out.