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Tunisian police crack down on ex Ben Ali allies

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HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA | January 23, 2011 09:57 PM EST | AP

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TUNIS, Tunisia — Police in Tunisia cracked down on key allies of the ousted president, placing two high-ranking officials under house arrest and detaining the head of a well-known private TV station for allegedly trying to slow down the country's nascent steps toward democracy.

The measures against former cronies and supporters of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali came amid continued street protests in the North African country's capital, Tunis, and efforts by the tenuous interim government to heed the incessant groundswell of opposition to his old guard.

Hundreds of protesters – many from Tunisia's provinces south of the capital – rallied in Tunis to press on with demands that holdovers of Ben Ali's repressive 23-year regime be kept out of power.

Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" drove the iron-fisted Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, and sparked similar protests and civil disobedience across the Middle East and North Africa. Many observers were looking to see if Tunisians can complete their fervent push for democracy.

State news agency TAP reported that Larbi Nasri, the president of privately owned Hannibal TV, was arrested along with his son on charges of "high treason" and plotting against state security.

The station, which has become one of Tunisia's most popular channels mainly for its sports coverage and lively talk shows, almost immediately stopped its broadcasts.

Nasri, who has family ties to Ben Ali's widely despised wife, Leila Trabelsi, is accused of using his channel to "cause the revolution of the young to fail, sow chaos, incite disobedience and broadcast information" aimed to hoodwink the public, TAP said. The ultimate aim, its report said, was "to restore the dictatorship of the former president."

TAP also reported that former Ben Ali advisers Abdallah Kallel and Abdelaziz Ben Dhia have been placed under house arrest, and police are looking for a third man, Abdelwaheb Abdallah.

Kallel, the Senate president and a former government minister, was stopped from leaving the country after Ben Ali fled. A Geneva-based legal advocacy group, Trial, said torture was widespread in Tunisia while Kallel was interior minister in the early 1990s.

Ben Dhia is considered one of Ben Ali's most influential advisers, and Abdallah was a top political adviser to the former president who kept tabs on communication – notably on Tunisia's powerful state-run media.

Some Tunisians who have been protesting praised the house arrests.

"I started applauding and singing in the house when I heard the news," teacher Leila Labidi, 35, told The Associated Press. "These men were like the right hands of Ben Ali .... guiding him to more oppression of the people."

"It's also proof that the people's voice is being heard and our demands are being met slowly," she added. "This is only the beginning ... The revolution won't quiet until all of them are removed."

The demonstrators scattered throughout the capital – near the prime minister's office, the finance and defense ministries, and a city office building – waving banners and photos of a young man who set himself on fire and triggering the uprising that ended Ben Ali's rule. Later, hundreds of protesters broke a curfew and staged a sleep-in in front of the prime minister's office.

"Bouazizi gave his life for his country," read one banner honoring 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in central Sidi Bouzid last month to protest harassment under Ben Ali.

The pilgrimage billed as the "Caravan of Freedom" left Saturday on a 320-kilometer (200-mile) trek to Tunis by car, truck and motorcycle from around Sidi Bouzid, protester Tahri Nabil said. Some hitchhiked or walked.

"We don't want Sidi Bouzid to continue to be marginalized like it was in the previous decades," said Nabil, a French language teacher who lives in the town of Menzel Bouzayane near Sidi Bouzid.

Weeks of public upheaval and the shooting deaths of some protesters by police on orders from Ben Ali's government helped send him fleeing. But daily protests have continued to force the old guard from power.

Some at the Tunis protest Sunday carried a makeshift coffin that was draped in a Tunisian flag – in a symbol of those who died as "martyrs" of the uprising.

Many marchers in this predominantly Muslim country chanted the line "There is no God but God, and the Martyr is God's Beloved" and some held aloft signs saying "Long live a Free Tunisia" and urging Ben Ali's former RCD party to be banned from power.

"We have gotten rid of the head of the snake but the tail is still alive – and we need to completely kill it," said protester Nizar Bouazziz, a 24-year-old student who said he walked to the rally from Sidi Bouzid.

"We are here to support our people and the revolution," he added. "We don't want to see one party gone and then another same oppressive party in its place. We want the Tunisians who have been forced to exile and who have good education and money to come back and invest in this country."

Weeks of public upheaval and the shooting deaths of some protesters by police on orders from Ben Ali's government helped send him fleeing. But daily peaceful protests have continued to try to force the old guard from power.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took that post in 1999 under Ben Ali and has kept it through the upheaval, has vowed to quit politics after upcoming elections. But he has insisted that he needs to stay on to shepherd Tunisia through a transition to democracy. Many other Cabinet members are also Ben Ali-era holdovers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Ghannouchi and said the U.S. is encouraged by indications the interim government is trying to be inclusive and ensure that the many segments of Tunisian society will have a voice.