Tunisia’s premier has pledged to form a government of technocrats ahead of new elections, after the murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked deadly protests and attacks on the ruling party’s offices.
Furious demonstrators built barricades in central Tunis on Wednesday and clashed with police, and four opposition groups, including Belaid’s Popular Front bloc, said they were pulling out of the national assembly.
One policeman was killed after being hit on the chest by rocks in Tunis, the Tunisian interior ministry said, while an ambulance carrying Belaid’s body to the city center was accompanied by crowds who pressed against the vehicle to protect it.
Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said in a televised address after Belaid was shot dead outside his home in Tunis on Wednesday that he would form a new, non-political administration ahead of fresh elections.
“I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time,” he said.
Jebali did not specify that he was dissolving the existing government, nor did he set a date for the reshuffle which must be confirmed by the national assembly.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki denounced the killing of Belaid, an outspoken critic of his government, as an “odious assassination.”
The ruling Islamist an-Nahda party, which Belaid’s family accused of being behind the killing, rejected any involvement.
An-Nahda chief Rached Ghannouchi said that the “cowardly” murder was the result of a settling of political scores.
The killers “want a bloodbath but they won’t succeed,” he said.
The four opposition groups blamed Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Laraydeh from an-Nahda for Belaid’s murder and demanded his sacking “because he knew he was threatened and he did nothing,” said Nejib Chebbi, leader of one of the blocs.
Belaid’s Popular Front and other opposition parties called for a general strike to protest against the assassination.
The US led Western nations who reacted with dismay at the killing, while Human Rights Watch said the authorities should ensure those responsible were brought to justice.
“There is no justification for an outrageous and cowardly act of violence like this. There is no place in the new Tunisia for violence,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed his “horror” at the attack, while French President Francois Hollande condemned a murder that “robs Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices.”
The violent scenes triggered by Belaid’s murder were reminiscent of the uprising that ousted veteran president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just over two years ago, with thousands protesting outside the interior ministry.
Belaid’s brother, Abdelmajid, bluntly accused the an-Nahda chief of the murder of the 48-year-old leftist leader, who headed the Party of Democratic Patriots, part of the Popular Front.
“I accuse Rached Ghannouchi of assassinating my brother,” Abdelmajid said.
The slain politician’s wife said her husband had received daily death threats and was murdered before her eyes.
“I saw his blood flowing, I saw his little smile. I saw that they want to kill democracy,” Basma Belaid told France’s Europe 1 radio.