Tunisia's Islamists 'reaffirm commitment to women'

Smoke is seen in the sky as police use tear gas on crowds protesting after the country's first democratic elections

The leader of the Islamist party that won the most seats in Tunisia's elections has said women's social gains would not be reversed.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi promised to strengthen the role of women in Tunisian politics.

Mr Ghannouchi appealed for calm in Sidi Bouzid where violent protests broke out after election officials disqualified candidates from a rival party.

Tunisian troops fired in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters.

There were no reports of casualties.

The BBC's Chloe Arnold, in North Africa, says the protests have marred what was otherwise praised by international observers as a peaceful, free and fair election on Sunday.

Policy change fears

Since its victory in Sunday's vote, Ennahda has sought to reassure secularists and investors, nervous about the prospect of Islamists holding power in one of the Arab world's most liberal countries, by saying it would not ban alcohol, stop tourists wearing bikinis on the beaches or impose Islamic banking.

But despite the reassurances, Ennahda's victory is causing concern in some parts of Tunisia, who fear the party could later change its policies, our correspondent says.

Election results

"Ennahda reaffirms its commitment to the women of Tunisia, to strengthen their role in political decision-making, in order to avoid any going back on their social gains," Mr Ghannouchi said at a news conference.

No attempt would be made to force women to wear the headscarf, including in government, he added.

The party, which won more than 41% of the vote and 90 seats in the 217-member parliament, is in coalition talks, reportedly with its nearest rivals, the CPR and Ettakatol.

Correspondents say both are left-wing secularist parties which have insisted they will maintain Tunisia's Muslim identity.

'Ben Ali link'

Violent protests broke out in the southern city of Sidi Bouzid overnight after candidate lists from the fourth-placed Popular List were disqualified.

Amateur video apparently shows supporters of a rival party attacking Ennahda's local headquarters

Protesters smashed doors and windows of the Ennahda headquarters in the town, attacked local government headquarters and burned tyres on the streets.

Troops fired tear gas and shots in the air to disperse the protesters.

A nighttime curfew has been imposed on the town from 18:00 until 04:00 GMT, officials said.

Mr Ghannouchi said the violence was provoked by forces linked to ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Reuters news agency reported.

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Popular List is led by London-based businessman Hachemi Hamdi.

One of the disqualified lists was headed by an ex-member of the former governing party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy, prompting claims in the media that Mr Hamdi was a supporter of the former president.

Sidi Bouzid is the birthplace of the unrest which erupted earlier this year, triggering the Arab Spring uprisings. In December last year, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at harassment from the authorities.

He died in January 2011, a few weeks before large-scale street protests forced long-time President Ben Ali to stand down.

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