TUNIS (Reuters) - Gunmen fired at random from cars in Tunis on Saturday and inmates staged a mass jailbreak while leaders tried to prevent Tunisia from descending into chaos after the president was swept from power.
It was not clear who the assailants were but a senior military source told Reuters that people affiliated to former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were behind the shootings.
Soldiers and tanks were stationed in the city centre to restore order in the aftermath of a night of looting that broke out when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of violent anti-government protests that claimed dozens of lives.
The ousting of Tunisia’s president after widespread protests could embolden Arab opposition movements and ordinary people to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.
Speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a coalition government and the constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.
The French government called on Tunisia to hold free elections as soon as possible and said it had taken steps to block suspicious movements of Tunisian assets in France.
Dozens of inmates were killed in the mass escapes from two prisons, gangs of men fired weapons randomly from speeding cars in the capital and clouds of black smoke hung over the city from torched buildings.
As night fell, a Reuters reporter said suburban neighbourhoods were being guarded from looters by impromptu militias, made up of residents armed with clubs and knives. They blocked neighbourhoods and only allowed local people to pass.
In a sign that Ben Ali’s rule was over, workers were taking down a portrait of the former president outside the headquarters of his RCD party on Mohamed V Avenue in the centre of Tunis.
“We are very happy to be free after 23 years of prison,” said Fahmi Bouraoui, drinking coffee in the Mozart cafe, one of a few businesses that reopened on Saturday morning.
But his optimism could be short-lived as parts of the country descended into chaos.
Tunisian analyst Taoufik Ayachi said of the drive-by shootings, about 10 km from the city centre on Saturday and in another suburb on Friday night:
“It is certain the presidential police are behind all this. They still hope to regain power.
Dozens of inmates were killed when they broke out of Mahdia prison and the prison at Monastir, also south of the capital, was on fire after a separate escape attempt, witnesses said.
“They tried to escape and the police fired on them. Now there are tens of people dead and everybody has escaped,” said a local man, Imed, who lives 200 m (yards) from Mahdia jail.
Forty-two people died in the Monastir riot, the official news agency said.
In suburban Tunis, the big Geant shopping centre was on fire, witnesses said.
State television showed footage of dozens of people who had been arrested for looting and violence. They had knives and double-barrelled shotguns and a small lorry stocked with stolen shoes, electrical equipment and a display mannequin.
In the suburb of Ariana, a crowd encircled four men who were shooting from the windows of a Ford jeep, somehow disarmed them and took them to the police.
Ghannouchi earlier confirmed reports that members of Ben Ali’s family had been arrested, but did not say who.
Al Jazeera television also reported that Ben Ali’s head of presidential security had been arrested.
Protesters have threatened to continue their campaign.
“We will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone. The street has spoken,” said Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens of people killed in the protests.
The Eurasia Group consultancy said that without a definitive timetable for elections or a transitional government including opposition representatives, protests could continue: “Although the streets of Tunis are calmer than they have been in several days, Ben Ali’s departure is not likely to immediately defuse tension across the country.”
The acting president on state television said he had asked the prime minister to form a coalition government.
“I have called on Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a new government of national unity,” he said.
An opposition leader who held talks with the prime minister on Saturday said there would be more negotiations on Sunday.
“We discussed the idea of a coalition government and the prime minister accepted our request to have a coalition government,” Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Union of Freedom and Labour party, told Reuters.
“There will be another meeting with the aim of getting the country out of this situation and to have real reforms. The results of these discussions will be announced tomorrow.”
A representative in France of the PDP opposition party said it was impossible to organise elections within two months, as proposed by the Constitutional Council.
“We do not accept this deadline because at the time there is a revolution in Tunisia and they’re in the process of transforming it into a coup d’etat so that the party in power can keep its grip,” Iyed Dahmani told Reuters in Paris.
“What is striking about Tunisia is how fast it happened — although there were decades of discontent behind it. That has to worry governments elsewhere,” Gala Riani, a Middle East Analyst with IHS Global Insight, said.
Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30 years, said it respected the choice of the Tunisian people. The Arab League called for calm and unity.
Jordan called for Tunisia’s political forces “to close ranks and work together to preserve the security of people and protect the country,” its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Islamic Jihad supporters rallied to support the uprising. Activists of the Islamic Jihad held Tunisian flags bearing the words “Revenge against tyranny” during the rally in the heart of Gaza City.
Around 5,000 Tunisians and sympathisers marched through Paris on Saturday, one screaming: “It’s the end of 23 years of tyranny.” As many as 600,000 Tunisians live in France and about 25,000 French people live in the former colony.
Around 100 Tunisians living in Italy gathered outside their country’s embassy in Rome, demanding free and fair elections and celebrating the departure of Ben Ali.
Germany’s Angela Merkel urged Tunisia to introduce “a true democracy” and said the European Union would support it.
Hundreds of European tourists have been stranded by the unrest and were flown home on emergency flights. Tunisian air space, closed on Friday, was reopened and the official news agency said all airports were open.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, John Irish, Brian Love and Laure Bretton in Paris; Writing by Jon Hemming and Alison Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy