TUNIS: Tunisians Thursday mourned six policemen killed in a firefight with suspected jihadists, as long-awaited crisis talks faced fresh delay over opposition doubts about the ruling Islamists’ readiness to quit.
The slain police were to be buried later Thursday in hometowns around Tunisia, including in the central Sidi Bouzid region where Wednesday’s clash broke out, amid rising anti-government sentiment.
In Kef, where one of the officers was to be buried, protesters torched the office of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda Thursday morning, an AFP photographer reported. Later, security forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of people attacking a local government building.
In Sidi Bouzid, security forces found a car bomb “ready to explode” at the site of clashes.
“We seized weapons, explosives, two grenade belts and a car bomb containing three canisters ready to explode,” ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Aroui said, speaking on Tunisian radio.
President Moncef Marzouki has declared three days of national mourning for the officers, but the victims’ families have barred government representatives from attending the funerals, and no official ceremony is planned.
“We have rejected plans by the government, the politicians to pay homage. ... We reject their condolences, their presence and above all the presence of [Prime Minister] Ali Larayedh,” said Jamel Salhi, the brother of one of the victims, in Sidi Bouzid.
The powerful UGTT trade union confederation called a strike in the poor central region where the uprising that toppled strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 first began, and in nearby Kasserine.
Wednesday’s violence came a week after two policemen and nine “terrorists” were killed in Beja, west of the capital, and as opposition protesters massed in central Tunis demanding the immediate resignation of the Islamist-led coalition.
Some demonstrators have vowed to continue their protest everyday outside the Kasbah, the site of the government’s headquarters, where dozens remained camped out overnight.
A national dialogue, which is the centerpiece of a plan to end the political paralysis gripping the country since the July assassination of opposition MP Mohammad Brahmi, has been put back to Friday.
The road map, drawn up mediators led by the UGTT, ran into trouble when the Islamist premier gave what the opposition described as an “ambiguous” commitment to step down in a speech late Wednesday.
“We repeat today our commitment to the principle of relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the road map,” 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 was supposed to precede the launch of the national dialogue.
The UGTT chief said the premier needed to clarify his comments to get the dialogue back on track.
“We are going to hold more consultations with the prime minister in order to get more clarifications on his speech,” Houcine Abassi said.
“We’ve decided that the national dialogue will begin on Friday.”
The opposition had been waiting for a “clear commitment” by Larayedh to resign within three weeks, as stipulated in the road map agreed to by his Islamist party Ennahda, to allow the national dialogue to begin.
According to the road map, the talks must lead within three weeks to the formation of a caretaker Cabinet.
Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections – key milestones in a transition that has effectively been blocked by wrangling between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition.
Commenting on the latest violence, Larayedh insisted Tunisia was “in the process of defeating terrorism ... despite the sacrifices,” and that the security forces were pursuing the remaining militants.