Monday, February 21, 2011

Tunisia News Update: Security Forces Fire Above Demonstrators Demanding New Government; Women Attacked; Priest Killed

Tunisia forces fire in air to disperse rally

TUNIS (Feb 20, 2011): Tunisian security forces fired into the air on Sunday as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to call for the replacement of the interim government, a Reuters witness said.

It was the second straight day of mass protests in the North African country's capital despite a government ban on rallies after a popular uprising last month forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

Following weeks of relative calm, as many as 30,000 marchers gathered in front of the prime minister's building shouting slogans such as "Leave!" and "We don't want the friends of Ben Ali!". Security forces fired into the air.

More than a month after Ben Ali's departure, some Tunisians have complained the caretaker government charged with setting elections to replace him has failed to provide security amid a surge in crime and worries over political violence.

Tunisia's Interior Ministry said on Saturday mass demonstrations were forbidden under state of emergency laws and that protesters could be arrested.

More than 15,000 protesters had clogged downtown Tunis on Saturday, most of them chanting anti-Islamist slogans after the murder of a priest the government blamed on "a group of terrorist fascists with extremist tendencies", and a series of Islamist protests against brothels.

The two days of protests end a stretch of relative calm in the capital since early February.

Ben Ali, who ruled the country since 1987, had outlawed Islamism and was seen as repressive and corrupt by many Tunisians. He fled to Saudi Arabia where he is now in ill health, according to sources.

Elections to replace him are expected in July or August. -- Reuters

Hundreds demonstrate for secular Tunisia

By Kaouther Larbi and Sonia Bakaric

TUNIS — Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated Saturday for a secular state following the murder of a Polish priest, verbal attacks on Jews and an attempt by Islamists to set fire to a brothel.

Rallied by a call on social network Facebook, they gathered in the main Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis waving placards reading, "Secularism = Freedom and Tolerance" and "Stop Extremist Acts".

"We've called this demonstration to show that Tunisia is a tolerant country which rejects fanaticism and to strengthen secularism in practice and in law," blogger Sofiane Chourabi, 29, said.

Police stood by as military helicopters circled overhead.

The 34-year-old priest Marek Rybinski was found dead Friday with his throat slit in the garage of a private religious school at Manouba near the capital where he was responsible for the accounting.

"To kill a Catholic in Tunisia is abnormal and to commit this crime in these circumstances is abnormal. These indications show us that this is a crime committed by extremists," a government official said.

Police and army "will rigorously fight and without hesitation all acts against religion because it is Tunisia's image that is at stake," the official added.

Some protestors said ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's henchmen may have carried out the murder in order to sow chaos and as propaganda to show that the new Tunisia is intolerant.

"To cut someone's throat, it's not the habit of Tunisians," said 42-year-old Kaouther.

Ben Ali's authoritarian regime presented itself as a bulwark against fanaticism, jailing thousands of Islamists in the 1990s.

Tunisia's bishop Lahham Maroun meanwhile said he was invited to meet with Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi on Sunday when a funeral service for Rybinski will be held.

The priest in charge of the school, Mario Mulestagno, revealed Saturday that it had received a death threat at the end of January in a confused letter stamped with a swastika and addressed to "the Jews".

The main Islamist movement in Tunisia, Ennahda (Awakening), also "strongly" condemned the murder Saturday, saying it was "a tactic to distract Tunisians from the objectives of Tunisia's revolution."

"We denounce what happened and we condemn all those who are behind it. We call on the Tunisian authorities to discover the real circumstances of this murder and find the people who did it to enlighten public opinion," the president of the movement's founding assembly, Ali El-Aryath, said.

The murder was the first of a foreigner or priest since Ben Ali's was toppled by mass protests on January 14. An interim government has been installed but the situation in the country is still extremely volatile.

The priest's body was found as hundreds of Islamists rallied in Tunis Friday calling for the closure of brothels in the city. A march on a street housing one of the best-known brothels was thwarted by police.

Anti-Jewish slogans were shouted outside the main Tunis synagogue earlier this month.

Meanwhile a general amnesty for thousands of political prisoners held under Ben Ali's regime came into force Saturday, the state news agency TAP said.

Elsewhere some 500 Tunisians rallied outside the French embassy condemning newly-appointed ambassador Boris Boillon protesting at remarks they deemed insulting and calling for his departure.

While calling for a "new page" in relations between France and Tunisia, Boillon, 41, refused to take questions from some journalists at a press conference on Thursday and dismissed others as "stupid".

Late Saturday he went on national television to apologise to journalists and the Tunisian people and expressed his regrets that his remarks had appeared "arrogant".

France, the former colonial power, failed to realise the strength of the opposition to Ben Ali and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie is under pressure to resign over her links to the deposed regime.

Tunisian prostitutes terrorized by Islamists

20 February, 2011 07:04:00

TUNIS - Tunisia Prostitutes living in fear of another attack since the Islamists tried to burn down the main prostitution district in Tunis. "I no longer go out, I fear they burn me alive", says one of them.

Armed with Molotov cocktails, "small bottles filled with gasoline" and "Long Knives" chanting "Allah Akbar" Islamists have tried to set fire Friday to brothels in the district of Guechi Abdallah in Tunis near the Medina.

Dressed in jeans and leather jackets, according to pictures taken by mobile phones, they were dispersed in the meandering alleys of this neighborhood by police and military.

In the courtyard of a brothel where dry sadly old fluorescent color panties, a dozen prostitutes in fine lines drawn with eyebrow pencil, trying to show "strong" in front of the "Islamist terrorists."

Smoking cigarette after cigarette, Mariam, 35, "owner" of a brothel frequented, according to her, by "the Chinese, Germans, Italians, Algerians, Egyptians, French, Libyans and "others" is still in shock.

"I was terrified," she said, that they wanted to burn us alive, it was too much for me and my colleagues who are my family."

One of the prostitutes, Lamia, a 38 year old blonde, wearing shorts and black wool gaiters, wonders, she said, "why they did that."

"When one gives men the places where they can indulge in sex, she says, they need not bother the girls in the streets, without forgetting that we're also feeding other families as cooks, maids and couriers who work for us."

A young customer, face down, interrupted the testimony of Lamia. She disappeared with him behind a simple curtain fabric in a small room composed of a bed, a bidet and a washbasin.

She reappears suddenly stripped down to say "if the government finds a job with decent wages, we would be prepared to stop." She says "win 3 dinars (about 1.5 euro) per customer" and had "about 10 to 15 clients per day."

"We only work with condoms and we see a gynecologist twice a week," she exclaims, throwing an occasional glance at her client who is waiting.

The rules in brothels are strict: "We're not allowed to leave the house except one day per week and six days when we are unwell," said another prostitute.

"If one of us does not respect the law, she says, we are sent a month or more in a brothel, far, far away from Tunis."

In another brothel, the decor consists of furniture piled up, an old box and at the entry three small boxes connected by a padlock, three prostitutes of a certain age confide that "they no longer sleep at night" since the attack by the Islamists.

"I could not work today, so we were afraid that night to see them return," says the "responsible" for prostitutes, Rachida, hair restrained by a Palestinian keffiyeh.

"They tried," she said, to burn us with Molotov cocktails, but they should know we do not like this job and we're Muslims."

Cherifa, 40, who previously worked as a housekeeper, said that "every customer spends between 10 and 30 minutes, but some, like the drunks can be very violent."

"It's too much for me," she said, but I have no choice." "I'm afraid they come back to burn us. We do not deserve it, we're human beings."

Outside, men stick together before the entry of other brothels, waiting for other women, very slightly and poorly clothed.

Islamic fundamentalists burn brothels in Tunisia

Tunis Feb.20

In an attempt to show force, Islamic fundamentalists burnt down a street of brothels in Tunis.

At least three people were injured, when security forces fired in the air on Friday, to disperse a huge crowd of Islamists protesting against a brothel in the capital.

A large number of Islamists had rallied outside the building of the Interior Ministry after the Friday prayers, calling for the closure of the brothels before marching to Abdallah Guech Street, which housed them.

The incident was the latest sign of Islamists organizing in Tunis, the only Arab country with legal prostitution, after an uprising led President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country last month, the Telegraph reports.

Mourad Barhoumi, a Tunis resident and a witness to the demonstration said: "Almost 500 Islamists, many wearing beards, were demonstrating in Old Medina to demand the closure of a brothel."

"There were several dozen riot police who shut off entry to the neighborhood. They fired in the air to break up the crowd, which didn't want to go until the brothel was shut," he added.

It was the third brothel shut by the movement in recent weeks.

Tunisia has plunged into turmoil after one man's self-immolation in a protest against the authorities sparked a revolt that led President Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia last month and encouraged a similar revolution in Egypt.

Tunisia arrests 40 migrants bound for Italy - source

Sun Feb 20, 2011 2:35pm GMT

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police arrested 40 youths trying to sail to Italy, part of efforts to stem a wave of illegal migration since the overthrow of the North African state's president, a security source told Reuters on Sunday.
The arrests took place Saturday in the coastal town of Gabes, a favourite launching point for rickety boats headed to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, the source said, adding a large sum of money was also seized.

"We arrested 40 youths who were seeking to leave Gabes for Italy," the source with knowledge of the incident said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly.

The European Union estimates at least 5,500 people from Tunisia have arrived in Italy since the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January, and has promised a team of border officials to help stop the flow.

Southern European governments have relied on tough measures by North African leaders to keep out illegal migrants, but Ben Ali's departure and the subsequent chaos in Tunisia's security forces have hindered that arrangement.

Italy and Tunisia last week agreed on a framework for cooperation on migrants that would give Tunisia aid, including a network of radars and fast boats.

Tunisian protesters ended Ben Ali's 23-year rule on January 14 in a popular uprising that served as an inspiration for the revolution in Egypt, and protesters elsewhere in the Arab world.

The country last week lifted a night-time curfew, but in a sign of lingering instability, kept a state of emergency in force that bans rallies and lowers the threshold for security forces to use live rounds.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Richard Valdmanis)

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