Tunisia forms national unity government amid unrest

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said the new government would work "towards democracy"

Tunisia has formed a national unity government, the country's prime minister has announced, days after a popular revolt ousted the president.

The prime minister, foreign, interior and defence ministers are to retain their jobs, with several opposition figures joining the government.

PM Mohammed Ghannouchi pledged to allow greater political and media freedoms.

Later the government said 78 people had been killed in recent violence, the highest official figure so far.

Dozens of people were known to have died, but the government had previously announced lower figures than those alleged by human rights organisations.

Unveiling the new government, Mr Ghannouchi said all political parties would now be allowed to operate in Tunisia.

Political prisoners would be freed and the media would be permitted "total freedom", he added.

"We have decided to free all the people imprisoned for their ideas, their beliefs or for having expressed dissenting opinions," the AFP news agency reported him as saying.

The announcement of the new government included a pledge to abolish Tunisia's information ministry and to create a state where the media had "total freedom".

Separately, a French photographer was confirmed dead on Monday from injuries sustained when he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister.

Lucas Dolega, 32, worked for the EPA press agency. In a statement, France's foreign ministry said he was the victim of a "deliberate homicide".

'Calm and peace'

Unveiling his new administration, Mohammed Ghannouchi named three prominent opposition figures to key posts in the government.

Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Ettajdid party, becomes minister of higher education, while Mustafa Ben Jaafar, of the Union of Freedom and Labour, is to serve as health minister.

Najib Chebbie, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, was named as Tunisia's new development minister.

TUNISIAN CABINET

  • Mohammed Ghannouchi stays on as prime minister. A Ben Ali ally, he has been in the job since 1999, keeping post throughout unrest
  • Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa, appointed by Mr Ben Ali to mollify demonstrators, retains post
  • Foreign Minister Kamal Morjane retains post
  • Najib Chebbi, founder of opposition Progressive Democratic Party, named as development minister
  • Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of opposition Ettajdid party, named minister of higher education
  • Mustafa ben Jaafar, leader of opposition Union of Freedom and Labour, named health minister
  • Slim Amamou, prominent blogger who was arrested during protests, tweets that he is secretary of state for youth and sport

One other appointment remained unconfirmed: prominent blogger Slim Amamou, briefly arrested during the protests, tweeted that he had been appointed to a job in the ministry for youth and sport.

Unveiling the new government at a news conference, Mr Ghannouchi said he aimed to move on from the previous autocratic regime.

"We are committed to intensifying our efforts to re-establish calm and peace in the hearts of all Tunisians. Our priority is security, as well as political and economic reform," he said.

The announcement came amid growing pressure from demonstrators for Tunisia to make a clean break with the policies of the former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was in office for 23 years.

Correspondents say there is some uncertainty over whether the inclusion of several veteran ministers in senior positions will be acceptable to those protesting on the streets.

One opposition figure, Ahmed Bouazzi, of the Progressive Democratic Party, said he believed the demonstrations would now be put on hold.

"It's not realistic to dissolve the ruling party," he told the BBC, citing the example of the chaos that engulfed Iraq after Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath party was dissolved in 2003.

"We can go forward with this government, and can even go again into the streets if it is not working."

But others were less convinced by the presence of several veterans of Mr Ben Ali's government in the new administration.

"It's as if Ben Ali's system is still there," Mohamed Mishgri told Reuters news agency.

"It's for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing in Tunis. We want a new state with new people."

Street anger

Unrest in Tunisia had grown over several weeks, with widespread protests over high unemployment and high food prices pitching demonstrators against Tunisia's police and military.

After dozens of deaths the protests eventually toppled Mr Ben Ali's government.

A Tunisian soldier stands guard in central Tunis (17 January 2010) Tunis was hit by renewed demonstrations and clashes before the announcement

The month-long violence had also cost the country 1.6bn euros (£1.34bn, $2.1bn), he was reported as saying.

Earlier on Monday, police in Tunis used water cannon, tear gas and occasional gunshots to disperse several hundred demonstrators calling for the party of ousted President Ben Ali to relinquish power.

The country has been in a state of emergency since he fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Monday's protesters shouted slogans against Mr Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), says the BBC's Lyse Doucet in Tunis, as they made it clear they wanted the ruling party to have no place in the new government.

The atmosphere was mixed, adds our correspondent, with the sound of tear gas being fired and gunshots ringing out during occasional skirmishes, interspersed with scenes of celebration and a rendition of the national anthem.

Days of violence have cut off supplies to shops and petrol stations, causing shortages. Correspondents say many people just want life to get back to normal.

The demonstrations gained momentum in December after a 26-year-old unemployed man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest against a lack of jobs in the country. He died in early January.

Amid concerns the protests may spread across the region, a man set himself on fire outside the Egyptian parliament buildings in Cairo on Monday. He did so in protest against the government, says the BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo.

There have also been several such incidents in Algeria which, like Egypt and Tunisia, has high unemployment and has been facing political unrest.

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