Tunis - Talks on ending months of political deadlock in
Tunisia have been postponed to Friday, as the country's Islamist prime minister
said his government was committed in "principle" to resigning to pave
a way out of the crisis.
A much anticipated speech by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh on Wednesday
came as clashes between security forces and gunmen rocked the central Sidi
Bouzid region, leaving at least six policemen dead, while opposition protesters
massed in central Tunis demanding the government's immediate departure.
"We repeat today our commitment to the principle of
relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the
roadmap," Larayedh said after an emergency cabinet meeting.
"We will not submit to anyone except the interests of
the country," he added, in a heavily delayed statement that held up the
scheduled launch on Wednesday afternoon of a long-awaited national dialogue.
But now those talks have been delayed to Friday as the
opposition found Larayedh's comments "ambiguous".
"We are going to hold more consultations with the prime
minister in order to get more clarifications on his speech today [Wednesday],"
said Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the powerful UGTT trade union.
"We've decided that the national dialogue will begin on
Friday at 10:00," he added.
The opposition had been waiting for a "clear
commitment" by Larayedh to resign within three weeks, as stipulated in the
roadmap drawn up by mediators and agreed to by his Islamist party Ennahda, to
allow the national dialogue to begin.
According to the roadmap, the talks must lead within three
weeks to the formation of a new caretaker cabinet of technocrats.
Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new
constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections. These are key
milestones in a transition that has effectively been blocked by wrangling
between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition.
Mediators hope the dialogue between Tunisia's bitterly
divided political factions will mark a crucial step in the country's democratic
transition and end the crisis triggered by the July murder of opposition MP
Mohamed Brahmi, an attack blamed on radical Islamists.
Three days of mourning
Reflecting Tunisia's ongoing security woes, six policemen
and a gunman were killed in clashes with a "terrorist" group that
erupted in the Sidi Bouzid region, Larayedh confirmed, adding that the security
forces were pursuing the remaining militants.
"The Tunisian state is in the process of defeating
terrorism... despite the sacrifices," he insisted.
A policeman has also been killed in the north of the country
in circumstances that are not yet clear, the interior ministry said late
President Moncef Marzouki has declared three days of
mourning for the slain members of the security forces, while the UGTT trade
union confederation has called a strike in Sidi Bouzid for Thursday.
Wednesday's deadly fighting highlighted opposition
complaints of inadequate action by the Islamist-led government to rein in
jihadist groups, who are also linked to the killing of another opposition MP in
Last week, two policemen were killed in the Beja region west
of the capital, and while the authorities said nine "terrorists" were
killed in an operation to catch those responsible, the deadly violence has fuelled
anti-government sentiment within the security forces.
Dozens of police trade union activists drove Larayedh and
Marzouki away from a memorial service last Friday for the policemen killed in
The defence ministry has admitted it lacks the resources to
combat militant groups and has struggled to contain them.
The planned national dialogue between the ruling Islamists
and the opposition was due to begin exactly two years after Ennahda emerged as
the largest party in parliamentary elections that followed the 2011 overthrow
of veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The Islamist group was heavily repressed under the Ben Ali
But since its triumph at the polls, the party has been
weakened by accusations that it has not done enough to fix Tunisia's ailing
economy and improve living standards, as well as failing to stem jihadist
At least10 000 protesters gathered in the capital's Habib
Bourguiba Avenue on Wednesday, calling for the Ennahda-led coalition
government's immediate departure and shouting slogans such as: "Government
of traitors, resign!"
"We hope that Larayedh will have enough courage to
announce the resignation of his government within three weeks to save the
country," an opposition leader at the protests, Hamma Hammami, told AFP
before Larayedh's speech.