Tunisia calms as government rejects old guard

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Tunisia's new government said Wednesday it has freed all thecountry's political prisoners and also moved to track down assetsstashed overseas by its deposed president and his widely dislikedfamily.

Tensions on the streets appeared to be calming as theadministration tried to show it was distancing itself from the oldguard.

Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis demandingthat former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Alistop clinging to power. Later, about 30 youths in the capital brokea curfew and set up camp near the heavily guarded InteriorMinistry, bringing mats, food and water for an overnight sit-in.Police didn't bother them.

In recent days, police had fired tear gas and clubbedprotesters.

The U.N. said more than 100 people have died in the unrest thatsurrounded Ben Ali's ouster.

He fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power, and acaretaker government is now struggling to calm this moderate Muslimnation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European touristsand seen as an ally in the West's fight against terrorism.

Some 33 members of Ben Ali's family have so far been taken intocustody while trying to leave the country, as was the Senatepresident, national TV said.

Ben Ali's longtime prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, kept hispost and is trying to convince Tunisians a new era has arrived -even if the composition of the interim government has many facesfrom the old guard.

Interim President Fouad Mebazaa went on television and promisedto live up to the people's revolt, which he called a"revolution."

"Regarding security, you have certainly noticed that it hasimproved," he said. "We have discovered the leaders of the chaos,and have stopped the gangs and those who put fear in the hearts ofpeople. The situation is moving toward stability."

Some were doubtful of promises of change.

Hafed al Maki, 50, who works at the country's largest insurancecompany, said he would not wait for the 60-day constitutional limitfor new presidential elections to pass "because that is enough timefor the old cronies to set their roots in and start their old waysagain, thieving and taking our resources. No way that's happeningagain."

Opposition figures and the prime minister's office have saidthat the 60-day limit is unrealistically short, and the delay willmore likely be six to seven months.

Swiss officials estimate Tunisian government officials have putabout $620 million into Swiss banks, and the anti-corruption groupTransparency International France and two other associations filedsuit in Paris alleging corruption by Ben Ali and his wife.

A French government minister said the Tunisian central bankdirector, Taoufik Baccar, has resigned following widespread rumorsthat the deposed president's wife fled the country with a stash ofgold. The central bank has denied an unsourced report in the Frenchnewspaper Le Monde that said Leila Trabelsi was believed to havetaken 1.5 tons of gold out of the country, possibly bringing it toSwitzerland.

But "rumors about that exist, and for that the president of theCentral Bank of Tunisia has resigned," Nejib Chebbi, a longtimeopponent who took a post in the unity government, told BBC WorldNews.

Chebbi said an investigation would take place.

Tunisia's official TAP news agency also reported that theCentral Bank had taken control of Banque Zitouna, a bank founded bya son-in-law of Ben Ali, to protect the deposits of accountholdersand prevent a run on the bank.

The national prosecutor's office moved to investigate overseasbank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali, hiswife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives. His relations - especiallyhis wife's family - were seen as corrupt and dominated manybusinesses in the nation.

The Swiss president said that her country's federal councilagreed to freeze any assets in Switzerland belonging to Ben Ali, tohelp work up a possible criminal case over alleged stolenfunds.

In Geneva, the United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay,said she was sending an "assessment team" to Tunisia in comingdays, and estimated more than 100 deaths have occurred so farduring the unrest in Tunisia.

Tunis' stock exchange, many shops, schools and universitiesremained closed and some workers have gone on strike. A curfewremains in place, thought the government shortened it as securityimproved.

Mustapha Ben Jafar, one of several new ministers who dropped outof the unity government Tuesday out of concern about the oldguard's strong presence, met Wednesday with the prime minister todiscuss conditions for a possible return.

He told The AP that the prime minister assured him all politicalprisoners have now been released, along with Islamists convictedunder the country's draconian 2003 anti-terror laws - which werewidely criticized by rights groups for being too sweeping andimprecise. It was unclear exactly how many such prisoners werefreed.

In another effort to ease tensions, the government released1,800 nonpolitical prisoners who had less than six months to serve,the official news agency reported.

Senate President Abdallah Kallel, a strong Ben Ali ally and aone-time powerful interior and defense minister, was taken intocustody along with his wife as they tried to fly to ParisWednesday, Tunisian national TV said. Security officials saidwithout elaborating that the couple was barred from departingpending investigations.

Tunisia's unrest has rattled the economy, which had seenimpressive growth in recent years. Moody's Investor Servicedowngraded Tunisia's government bond ratings Wednesday, citing"significant uncertainties" surrounding Tunisia's economic andpolitical future.

Moody's cut the rating by one notch, to "Baa3" from "Baa2," andalso downgraded its outlook to negative from stable. The new ratingis one notch above "junk bond" status.


Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Maggie Michael in Cairo, and GregKeller in Paris contributed to this report.