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Tunisia to Shake Up Cabinet as Protesters Clash


Protesters burn a photo of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in Tunis, 24 Jan 2011

Protesters burn a photo of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in Tunis, 24 Jan 2011

Tunisia's interim leaders say they will reshuffle the country's new government on Wednesday, as protesters demanding a purge of former loyalists clashed with fellow Tunisians urging an end to the demonstrations.

Government spokesman Taieb Baccouche said Tuesday the new cabinet mainly will fill posts vacated by five resignations over the past week, including three labor union representatives and one opposition leader.

A source close to the government told the French news agency the resignations will be filled by independent figures. But the government remains dominated by former members of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's RCD party.

Hundreds rallied in the capital, Tunis, Tuesday in support of the interim government formed after Mr. Ben Ali's fall. They later clashed with a larger anti-government crowd calling for a clean break with the old regime. No injuries were reported.

Also Tuesday, the Reuters news agency said soldiers fired in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters in the central city of Gefsa demanding better economic opportunities - the first time the army has intervened since Mr. Ben Ali's departure on January 14. Reuters cited witnesses in Gefsa as saying that a young man set himself on fire following the army's intervention, suffering severe burns.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi said Tuesday he fears the Tunisian revolution is being exploited by "foreign interests." Mr. Gadhafi voiced support for the revolution, in stark contrast to earlier comments in which he praised Tunisia's ousted leader, saying he regretted Mr. Ben Ali's fall.

Also Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, said that only free and fair elections will strengthen and give credibility to the north African state's embattled leadership. Feltman, who arrived in Tunis Monday, is the first foreign official to visit the country after the former president's ouster.

Tunisian officials said Monday they are negotiating the formation of a supervisory council to oversee the country's interim government, in an effort to appease the protesters.

Sources involved in the discussions said the proposed council would issue an electoral code and hold elections for a new parliament that would rewrite the constitution.

Officials say the oversight body will include Tunisia's powerful labor union, the bar association, civil groups and political parties - including the country's largest Islamist group, Al Nahda, which was banned under Mr. Ben Ali.

Earlier, Tunisia's army chief, General Rashid Ammar, warned that a "power vacuum" could bring back the dictatorship, as pressure continues to mount on the interim government.

Mr. Ben Ali fled the North African country amid an eruption of unrest over unemployment, rising prices and corrupt rule. The government has said at least 78 people have been killed in the violence. U.N. officials say the death toll may be as high as 100.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.

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