Violence-scarred Tunisia announces new government

Associated Press | 1/18/2011, 7:05 p.m.

“The question is whether there will be or won’t be free and fair elections,” said Marzouki, whose movement is of the secular left.

During a visit to neighboring Algeria on Monday, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, said the United States stands ready to help Tunisia’s government to hold “free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations” of the Tunisian people.

In a Twitter post, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “Tunisia made some important promises today, to open up to media and human rights groups. These are steps in the right direction.”

The European Union also pledged its support of Tunisia as it moves toward democracy and offered economic aid.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France -- a former colonial overseer of Tunisia - told French radio Monday the French government is keeping a close watch on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.

Also in France, three rights groups filed a legal complaint Monday seeking an investigation into French assets of the families of Ben Ali and his wife, to determine whether they were purchased with embezzled public funds.

Looting, gun battles, and score-settling have roiled the country since Friday, when a month of street protests against years of repression, corruption and a lack of jobs brought down Ben Ali.

Over the weekend, police arrested dozens of people, including the top presidential security chief, as tensions mounted between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali’s ouster and loyalists in danger of losing many perks.

Fierce gun battles broke out between the two groups Sunday around the presidential palace in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis and near the Interior Ministry in the capital.

The protests began last month after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate act - from which he later died - hit a nerve, sparking copycat suicides and focused anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.

Reports of self-immolations surfaced in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria on Monday, in apparent imitation of the Tunisian events.

The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in the region.

Associated Press Writer Raf Casert in Brussels, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.