Tunisia: Arrest warrant issued for ex-president Ben Ali

Media caption,
Tunisian police have fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters in the capita

Tunisia has issued an international arrest warrant for ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family, the nation's justice minister has said.

Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said the interim government had asked members states to work via Interpol to detain Mr Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January.

Mr Chebbi said Mr Ben Ali was accused of illegally acquiring property and assets and transferring funds abroad.

The minister was speaking as anti-government protests continued.

Police fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators after they reportedly tried to breach barricades around the prime minister's office in the capital, Tunis.

Some in crowd responded by throwing stones at the police.

They were demanding that members of the interim government who served under Mr Ben Ali - including Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and the defence, interior, finance and foreign ministers - step down.

"We have only one demand: for the government to fall. They all have to go. Ghannouchi should go first," Bassem El Barouni was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

Hamid El Gribi, another protester, said: "We have to clean up the rest of the old government."

The prime minister has said he will quit "in the shortest possible timeframe" and promised to hold elections with six months.

He is reportedly preparing to announce replacements for the five opposition ministers who resigned because of the continued dominance of Mr Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party.

'This woman'

Earlier, Mr Chebbi, a former barrister who did not serve in the last administration, said he had issued an arrest warrant for Mr Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, and other members of their extended family, for "illegal acquisition" of assets and "illicit transfers" of funds abroad.

"We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman, for trial in Tunisia," he told reporters. "No-one will be above the law."

Image caption,
Tunisians were angered by the power and wealth of Leila Trabelsi's family

The minister said seven family members were currently in Tunisian custody, and also that the head of the presidential guard and five other personnel would be put on trial for "conspiring against state security and inciting people against each other with weapons" after Mr Ben Ali's departure.

Before Mr Ben Ali was overthrown, many protesters expressed their anger at the power, wealth and influence of his wife's family. "No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget," was a popular slogan, while the president's relations were referred to simply as "the Mafia".

Later, Interpol confirmed that its bureau in Tunis had issued a global alert - known as an "Interpol diffusion" - requesting that member countries search for, locate and provisionally arrest Mr Ben Ali and six others. The Tunisian authorities would then formally request extradition, it said.

The BBC's Magdi Abdelhadi, in Tunis, says it is unlikely Saudi Arabia will hand them over but the warrants will restrict their ability to travel to other countries, especially in the West.

Earlier this week, the Canadian authorities refused entry to some of Mr Ben Ali's relatives. In France, prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into the former president's holdings, believed to range from apartments to racehorses.

Mr Chebbi also revealed that 11,029 prisoners - about a third of those held in Tunisian jails - had escaped during the unrest of the past 12 days.

Of those, 1,532 prisoners had been returned to their cells, he said. Another 74 prisoners were killed in fires that broke out at several jails.

Mr Chebbi also said 2,460 prisoners had been released. He did not say if they were political prisoners, whom the government has promised to free.

Meanwhile, the country's main trade union, the General Tunisian Workers' Union (UGTT), said up to 100,000 people had taken part in an anti-government protest in the second city of Sfax after it called a strike.

Another strike has been called by the UGTT on Thursday in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the uprising began in mid-December.

Image caption,
Protesters are demanding politicians from the old administration stand down

During a visit to Tunis on Tuesday, US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman urged the interim government to do more to satisfy the demands of the people and offered assistance in preparing for free elections.

"The more that the interim government of Tunisia takes concrete steps to prepare for and implement democratic elections and a democratic system, and the more the interim and future governments are able to answer the grievances that led to this popular movement, the stronger and the warmer its partnership with the United States will be," he said.

"The interim unity government... has made some encouraging statements and have taken some good steps regarding the need for elections, for greater openness, for significant reforms.

"These steps will need to be implemented, expanded upon and added to in the days and months ahead."

His comments came as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi told Tunisian TV he feared the uprising was being exploited by "foreign interests".

On Wednesday afternoon, the government eased the overnight curfew imposed under the state of emergency because of "improved security". It will now be in place from 2200 (2100 GMT) to 0400 (0300 GMT).