Tunis/Paris - Tunisia was plunged into turmoil on Wednesday following the assassination of an opposition leader and arch critic of the Islamist-led government, as the prime minister declared his intention to dissolve the government.
Chokri Belaid, general secretary of the secular Democratic Patriots party and co-founder of the Popular Front coalition, was gunned down outside his home in the capital Tunis by unknown gunmen who shot him in the neck and head as he was leaving for work.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali late on Wednesday said he intended to dissolve the government of the Ennahda-dominated government after the assassination of the top opposition leader.
In a speech broadcast by Tunisian television, Jebali declared he would build a nonpartisan government with independent experts, according to reports in French media.
The 48-year-old lawyer was rushed to hospital, where he died of his wounds.
Family and supporters pointed the finger at the ruling Ennahda party, with whom Belaid had repeatedly crossed swords. His widow directly implicated Ennahda and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, on the broadcaster France 24.
The party and government denied any involvement in the murder.
In Washington, the United States condemned the assassination. Noting that a "broad base" of Tunisian political parties and actors have condemned the killing, State Department Victoria Nuland said: "There is no justification for an outrageous and cowardly act of violence like this. There is no place in the new Tunisia for violence."
Jebali called the attack an "act of terrorism not only against Belaid but against the whole of Tunisia" and promised the police would do everything to arrest the killers.
Ghannouchi blamed forces "hostile to Ennahda and the governing coalition", whom he said wanted to halt the country's progress.
President Moncef Marzouki said the allegations of Ennahda involvement were "absurd" and appealed for national unity.
His call fell on deaf ears as thousands of people took to the streets of Tunis to demand that the government "get lost" - a term used against dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the revolution that ousted him two years ago.
Police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators who gathered on the central Habib Bourguiba avenue. The central town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the anti-Ben Ali uprising, also saw demonstrations.
Ennahda offices were attacked in several areas.
Belaid, head of a small secular far-left party, who spent time in jail under the Ben Ali regime, had become one of the country's most prominent politicians since banding together with 10 other parties last October to found the Popular Front.
The Popular Front positioned itself as an alternative to both the government and another opposition party led by former members of the Ben Ali regime and quickly became a voice of the working class.
The government accused the new coalition of fomenting protests.
Belaid charged the government of being incompetent and of doing the bidding of Gulf powers.
In a recent television interview Belaid said he had received death threats.
His killing follows several attacks in recent weeks on opposition party members and meetings by pro-government militia.
Belaid had accused "Ennahda mercenaries" of carrying out an attack on a meeting of his party on Saturday. The Nida Tounes party of former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi said his headquarters were also attacked by thugs at the weekend.
Last year, a Nida Tounes organiser died after a scuffle with Ennahda supporters in the town of Tataouine.
The Popular Front demanded on Wednesday that the government resign and called for a general strike. It also said that it was pulling out of the constituent assembly currently drawing up a new constitution.
The killing marks a turning point in the first Arab country to overthrow an authoritarian leader through popular protest and the first to hold peaceful, democratic elections afterwards.
President Marzouki, whose left-wing Congress for the Republic is in coalition with Ennahda, said the attack was an attempt to drive a wedge between moderates on either side of the Islamist-secularist divide.
"It's a threat, a letter that has been sent to us which will not be received," Marzouki told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he was on a visit.
"We reject this letter, we reject this message," said Marzouki who called off a planned visit Wednesday to Egypt to return directly to Tunisia.