TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian authorities on Sunday denounced a plot against the state by backers of ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as talks on national unity got under way while heavy gunfire broke out here.
Officials said they had arrested the general in charge of Ben Ali’s security apparatus, Ali Seriati, for plotting against the new leadership amid fears of a backlash by supporters of the deposed president.
Ben Ali’s nephew, Kais Ben Ali, was meanwhile arrested earlier on Sunday along with 10 others in the central town of Msaken — the Ben Ali family’s ancestral home — overnight for “shooting at random” from police cars during the night.
The developments came as Tunisia’s main parties held talks on forming a national unity government following the abrupt departure after 23 years in power of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after a wave of protests against his regime.
In central Tunis, security forces exchanged fire with unidentified attackers hidden inside buildings, AFP reporters said. The shooting kicked off after an exchange of fire outside the headquarters of the main opposition party.
Around 1,500 protesters meanwhile held a peaceful rally in the town of Regueb in which they slammed the political talks in the capital saying the new government would not be truly democratic, a local trade union leader said.
The army broke up the rally as protests are banned under the rules of a state of emergency declared in the country on Friday. Regueb was the scene of several violent protests in the run-up to the ouster of Ben Ali.
Representatives of two parties banned under Ben Ali — the Communist party and the Islamist Ennahdha party — were excluded from the government talks.
The head of Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, who lives in exile in London, told AFP earlier that he now intended to return to Tunisia.
Some cafes had re-opened earlier on Sunday in the centre of Tunis — the scene of violent clashes in the days running up to Ben Ali’s abrupt departure on Friday — as the army continued its lockdown of the city centre.
“There are major food shortages. We don’t have enough bread and flour. We risk a food crisis if this continues,” said Najla, who was filling her basket with meat and vegetables at the main market in Tunis.
Long queues were seen outside the few bakeries and groceries open.
A French photographer from the EPA agency hit in the head by a tear gas canister during the protests in central Tunis on Friday died of his injuries on Sunday, his relatives and a source at the French consulate said.
A source at the military hospital in Tunis earlier on Sunday also said that Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of the wife of former president Ben Ali, was stabbed and died on Friday — the same day that the president fled the country.
The night in Tunis was punctuated by the crackle of gunfire and army helicopters circled overhead, as eyewitnesses reported people riding around in ambulances and cars in the suburbs shooting up homes at random.
Observers said the transition of power in Tunisia would be far from smooth.
“You can’t ignore the power of disruption of the presidential security apparatus that was headed up by general Ali Seriati. It has thousands of supporters of Ben Ali,” an informed source said on condition of anonymity.
Tunisia’s new acting president, speaker of parliament Foued Mebazaa, was sworn in on Saturday after Ben Ali resigned and fled Tunis following weeks of social protests in cities across the North African state.
Mebazaa said earlier that all Tunisians “without exception” would now be able to take part in national politics in the once tightly-controlled country and a presidential election is due to be held in two months’ time.
Mebazaa called for a unity government for “the greater national interest.”
There were chaotic scenes in and around Tunis on Saturday.
The main railway station was attacked and portraits of Ben Ali were torn down around the country. Most of the violence appeared to target the property of Ben Ali’s family and his residence in the resort of Hammamet was looted.
Soldiers were seen dragging dozens of suspected looters from their cars at gunpoint and loading them into trucks at checkpoints in the city, and smashed-up cars without number plates littered the streets of the suburbs.
Human rights groups say dozens of people were killed after food protests which began last month escalated into a popular social movement.
International powers including European nations and the United States urged calm in Tunisia and called for democracy in the southern Mediterranean country after events that Tunisian Internet users have dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution”.
The Arab League said the overthrow of Ben Ali was a “historic” event but many Arab governments were cautious about the dramatic events in Tunisia — the first ouster of a leader of the Arab world under pressure from street protests.