Tunisia sets December election, mourns slain soldiers

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Tunisia’s authorities declared a general election for December following days of anti-government protests, and began three days of mourning on Tuesday after extremists killed at least eight soldiers.

“This government will stay in office,” Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told state television on Monday.

“We are not clinging to power, but we have a duty and a responsibility that we will exercise to the end,” he added, proposing December 17 for a general election.

An official declaration of mourning came after the discovery on Monday of soldiers’ bodies in the Mount Chaambi area, near the border with Algeria. Troops there have been hunting Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

While the official defense ministry toll was eight dead, medical and military sources had earlier told AFP that nine soldiers had been killed. Some of them had had their throats cut, the sources added.

State television ran pictures of the mutilated corpses of the victims.

In a televised address, President Moncef Marzouki, a secular politician allied to the ruling moderate Islamic Ennahda party, called for national unity after the soldiers’ deaths.

“If we want to face up to this danger we have to face up to it united,” he said.

“I call on the political class to return to dialogue because the country, society, is under threat,” he added.

Marzouki also referred to last Thursday’s assassination of the senior opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi, the event that triggered the latest series of anti-government protests.

The government has blamed his murder on Islamist extremists and Marzouki regretted that this “tragedy” had divided the country rather than uniting it.

But the government’s critics say the Ennahda-led cabinet has failed to rein in radical Islamists who have grown in influence and stand accused of a wave of attacks since the 2011 uprising.

Since Brahmi’s death, around 60 politicians have pulled out of the work of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) that is drawing up the country’s new constitution.

NCA speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar has called for “restraint” and urged deputies to return and resume work on the much-delayed constitution, one of the thorniest issues in post-revolution Tunisia.

Ennahda MP Fathi Ayadi told AFP: “Those who boycott the NCA betray Tunisia.”

Larayedh made the election announcement after a cabinet meeting and a security meeting chaired by President Marzouki.

“We think that the National Constituent Assembly will complete the electoral code by October 23 at the latest so elections can be held on December 17,” he said.

Larayedh urged “all Tunisians, parties, associations to avoid letting themselves be drawn in by calls to the unknown, chaos and violence.”

December 17 is a significant date.

It was on that day in 2010 that fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive in the town of Sidi Bouzid, beginning the Tunisian revolution that toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

Police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators Monday in Sidi Bouzid, which was also Brahmi’s home town.

Brahmi was the second opposition politician to be killed after Chokri Belaid was gunned down outside his home in February.

Monday’s anti-government protests erupted in both Tunis and Sidi Bouzid saw protesters demand the resignation of the government and parliament dissolved.

In both cities, police used tear gas against demonstrators, AFP correspondents reported.

In Sidi Bouzid, which lies in the centre-west of the country, hundreds of protesters blocked employees from going to work at the governor’s office.

In Tunis, police fired tear gas to disperse a rally outside the National Constituent Assembly for a fourth day running.

Overnight around 10,000 people demonstrated for and against the government in Bardo Square outside parliament, separated by police vans and metal barricades.

Protests have swelled at night in Tunis, where streets are empty during the day because of searing temperatures and the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The authorities have accused radical Salafists close to Al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia of killing Brahmi, whose body was riddled with 14 bullets outside his home.

They say the same gun was used to assassinate Belaid.

Ansar al-Sharia has denied any responsibility.

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