Tunis: Tunisian police fired tear gas amid clashes triggered by the killing of a senior opposition leader, the first such assassination in the country since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted two years ago.
Democratic Patriots leader Chukri Beleid was pronounced dead at a local hospital after an attack outside his home early Wednesday, Ziad Lakhdar, a senior party official, said. He was shot once in the neck and once in the head, Mr Lakhdar said. There has been no claim of responsibility.
Prime Minister Hamade Jbeli said he was forming a caretaker unity government comprised of technocrats without political affiliations and called on Tunisians to unite and stop strikes for the sake of the country.
Chukri Beleid, a prominent Tunisian opposition politician, pictured in January. was shot dead on February 6. Photo: Reuters
Earlier, protesters took to the streets of Tunis and the city of Sidi Bouzid, where demonstrators burned tires and threw stones at police. The offices of the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party were torched around the country, Al Arabiya television said.
The opposition said it holds the government and Interior Ministry responsible for the killing, and called a general strike to mark the day of Mr Beleid's funeral. The unrest heaps pressure on the coalition government as it struggles to bridge economic and political rifts and contain outbursts of violence by Salafis, Islamists seeking a strict interpretation of Shariah law in the traditionally secular nation.
Tunisian protesters clash with riot police during a demonstration after the death of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid in Tunis February 6, 2013. Photo: Reuters
"Those who killed Beleid wanted to silence his voice and kill the hopes of Tunisians," Mr Jbeli told Mosaique FM radio. He said those responsible for the assassination would be found and held responsible. In later televised comments, he said he was forming a cross-party government ahead of elections.
The killing of Mr Beleid, a critic of the ruling Ennahda, radical Islamists and the former president, follows a February 3 arson attack on the secular Nidaa Tounes opposition party headquarters in Kebili province, and clashes between opposition groups and government supporters in the cities of El Kef and Kairouan on February 1 and February 2.
Mr Beleid had received death threats, Paris-based France 24 television said, without providing details. His wife holds Ennahda responsible, the broadcaster reported, a charge it denied.
The government is "aware of the enormity of the challenges encountered by our country," the office of President Moncef Marzouki said in a statement. It called on Tunisians to avoid being dragged into a cycle of violence, saying "we invite everyone to use reason, self-restraint and prudence."
Mr Marzouki cut short a visit abroad to return to Tunisia, Al Arabiya reported.
Mr Jebali's announcement that he will form a government comes after a months-long impasse between his party Ennahda and its secular coalition partners over the distribution of ministries. Plans to form a government of technocrats had stalled before the "odious (killing) that has shocked our people," said Mr Jebali.
"(Belaid's) assassination has quickened my decision, for which I assume full responsibility before God and before our people," he added.
The secular parties in government have been demanding that key ministries be assigned to independents, a move rejected by Ennahda hardliners, including party head Rached Ghannouchi.
Mr Jebali is considered a moderate within his party and favourable to the justice and foreign affairs ministries being allocated to non-political figures.