Tunisian opposition welcomes President Ben Ali's pledge

People demonstrate on January 13, 2011 in Paris, to protest against the repression against demonstrators in Tunisia.
Image caption Many people have been killed in recent demonstrations

Tunisia's opposition has cautiously welcomed a speech by the president in which he said he would not seek a new term in 2014.

Najib Chebbi, the country's main opposition leader, said the move was "very good", but said he was awaiting "concrete details".

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's comments came after widespread protests which have left at least 23 dead.

The 74-year-old has ruled the country virtually unchallenged since 1987.

Human rights groups say more than 60 people have died in weeks of unrest across the country, as security forces responded to people protesting over corruption, unemployment levels and high food prices.

Mr Chebbi, who founded the Progressive Democratic Party, said the speech was "important politically and corresponds to the expectations of civil society and the opposition".

"The president has touched on the heart of the issue, demands for reform... This is something we have asked for for a long time and it is very good that he has promised not to put himself forward for the election," he told Reuters.

"The new policy in the speech was good and we await the concrete details."

'Massive regret'

Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, said the speech "opens up possibilities".

Image caption Mr Ben Ali pledged to take action on food prices and end internet censorship

But, he added: "These intentions still have to be applied".

Meanwhile, MP Ahmed Ben Brahim, head of the former communist Ettajdid party, said: "It's positive, the speech answers questions that were raised by our party."

But others were not convinced by Mr Ben Ali's comments.

Human rights activist Mohamed Abbou said he believed President Ben Ali was "fooling the Tunisians with promises that have no tomorrow".

In a nationwide announcement on Thursday, Mr Ben Ali declared that there was "no presidency for life" in Tunisia.

Many had expected him to amend the constitution to remove the upper age limit for presidential candidates and enable him to stand again in 2014, but he said he did not intend to do so.

The president, who earlier this week had blamed the unrest on "terrorists", also said he felt "very, very deep and massive regret" over the deaths of civilians in recent weeks.

He said he had ordered troops to stop firing on protesters except in self defence, and pledged to take action on food prices, which have gone up fourfold in recent weeks.

Strike call

Shortly after the speech was broadcast, crowds of Mr Ben Ali's supporters took to the streets of the capital, cheering and sounding car horns.

Trade unions have called on people to observe a general strike on Friday in the capital and other areas, but it is not yet clear what effect Mr Ben Ali's comments may have had on union members.

The protests began in mid-December in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.

The government has previously blamed religious groups and opposition parties for stoking the violence.

Mr Ben Ali is only Tunisia's second president since the country gained independence from France in 1956.

He came to power in 1987 and was last re-elected to a five-year term in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote.

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