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Tunisian PM pledges to quit after 'free' polls

TUNIS, Jan 22 (AFP) - Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi vowed to quit after holding the north African country's first fair polls since independence, following the ouster of veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“After the transition, I will retire from political life,” Ghannouchi said in an interview with Tunisian television and promised to stage “transparent and democratic elections -- the first since independence” from France in 1956.

A Tunisian soldier with flowers in the barrel of his weapon stands guard outside the headquarters of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD) in central Tunis. AFP

“All undemocratic laws will be scrapped” during the transition to democracy, he added, mentioning electoral, anti-terrorism and media laws. The prime minister, who occupied the same post in the previous government before the downfall of Ben Ali exactly a week ago, was speaking as protesters on Friday called for all old regime figures to be removed from government.

“Like all Tunisians, I was afraid” under Ben Ali, he said in the interview, his ever first direct address to the nation. Ghannouchi, who earlier said in an interview with a French radio station that he had the impression that the North African country was run by Ben Ali's unpopular wife Leila, stressed on Friday that “there is no going back.”

“We have done a 180-degree turn,” a visibly moved Ghannouchi said, adding: “We have enough capable and competent men” to run the country. Ben Ali resigned and fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power, felled by a populist uprising against unemployment, corruption and poverty that quickly spiralled out of control despite a bloody crackdown.

Ghannouchi has promised parliamentary and presidential elections within six months, but no dates have been set and the country's constitution says the vote should be held in less than two months. However protestors have called for the premier -- an old regime figure -- to quit. “You stole the wealth of the country but you're not going to steal the revolution! Government resign! We will stay loyal to the blood of the martyrs!” protesters chanted, marching down central Tunis.

Some waved Tunisian flags, others the flag of the main UGTT trade union, which played a key role in the protests that forced Ben Ali from power. Abid Briki, deputy head of the powerful UGTT, told AFP: “The executive committee of the UGTT met today and called for the dissolution of the government and the formation of a new government for national salvation.”The union has refused to recognise the new government announced on Monday, in which key figures from the Ben Ali regime hold powerful posts, withdrawing its three appointees.

On Friday, flags flew at half-mast and state television broadcast prayers from the Quran as Tunisia began national mourning for the 78 people who officials say were killed when security forces cracked down on the wave of social protests that began last month.

The government has declared three days of mourning and major democratic reforms such as the release of all political prisoners, complete media freedom and the registration of previous banned political movements -- including the Islamist Ennahdha.

But one protestor held up a sign reading “Our President” next to a photograph of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit vendor who inspired the uprising against Ben Ali by setting himself on fire last month.

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