Tunis - 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 defence ministry toll was eight dead,
medical and military sources had earlier said 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
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
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 23 October 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
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
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
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
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.