July 19, 2011 / 2:33 PM / 7 years ago

Tunisia's Islamist party denies it behind riots

* Islamist leader denies responsibility for violence

* Decries attempt to discredit Islamists in Tunisia

* Amnesty calls for investigation into death of boy

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, July 19 (Reuters) - The leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist political party on Tuesday denied any responsibility for the wave of violent protests in the capital and other cities in recent days.

Violence in Tunis and elsewhere, seen by the government as the work of Islamist youths, has claimed the life of one teenaged boy and shaken the country six months after the revolution which toppled Tunisia’s autocratic president.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, said he had not called for any demonstrations, including one in Tunis on Friday when police angered Muslims by firing tear gas into a mosque.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi on Monday blamed religious extremist parties for the violence, although he did not name any political party.

Ghannouchi said he believed there were attempts to discredit the Islamist movement in Tunisia.

“We feel that there are attempts to provoke the Muslim youth and induce them to violence, possibly aimed at postponing the elections,” he told a news conference.

Tunisia is due to hold elections on Oct. 23 for a body charged with drawing up a new constitution.

“I appeal to the religious youth and all youths in Tunisia to stay away from violence,” he said.

He also criticised what he called police brutality in the way the demonstrations, which erupted in central Tunis on Friday and spread to other locations, had been suppressed.

Ghannouchi said police had stormed the mosque in the town of Menzel Bourguiba, about 70 km (45 miles) north of Tunis, with dogs to arrest people.

The rioting is the clearest sign to date of the friction between Tunisia’s secular establishment and Islamists who have been growing more assertive since the country’s “Jasmine Revolution” in January.

Tunisians overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a revolution that inspired uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere.

Amnesty International said the first victim of the latest riots was a 13-year-old boy called Thabet al-Hajlaoui and demanded that the authorities launch an independent and impartial investigation into his death.

The defence ministry said soldiers in the central town of Sidi Bouzid had fired in the air to control the crowd.

Sidi Bouzid is the town where a fruit seller set himself on fire last December, ultimately setting off mass demonstrations that spread across the region.

“The security forces must answer for this tragic death. The firing of live ammunition against Sunday’s protesters in Sidi Bouzid is a stark reminder of the methods used against protesters under Ben Ali,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International. (Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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