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Sun 27 Feb 2011 08:59 PM

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Tunisia prime minister Ghannouchi resigns amid growing violence

Soldiers fire above crowds in capital Tunis to disperse protesters after announcement

Tunisia prime minister Ghannouchi resigns amid growing violence
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi delivers a speech during a press conference to announce his resignation on February 27, 2011 in Tunis

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi resigned on Sunday to try to smooth the way for elections in the North African state, but analysts said the move could backfire.

Shortly after the announcement, security forces fired into the air in the capital Tunis to disperse hundreds of youths who were throwing rocks and smashing shop windows.

Critics have accused Ghannouchi of being too close to former President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, toppled on Jan 14 after a series of protests that sent shockwaves across the Arab world and encouraged a similar uprising in Egypt.

"My resignation will provide a better atmosphere for the new era," he said, adding he wanted to prevent more deaths. Three people have been killed since Friday in clashes between security forces and demonstrators at protests against Ghannouchi.

"My resignation is in the service of the country," he said during a speech on state TV. "I am not a man of repression."

Ghannouchi restated the government's pledge to hold elections to replace Ben Ali, widely seen by Tunisians as repressive and corrupt, by July 15.

Analysts said Ghannouchi's resignation had the potential to ease street tensions, but may also backfire.

"The hope is that, with this concession, street protests will calm down and this will allow the government to get to the task of preparing elections," said Kamran Bokhari, regional director of the Middle East and South Asia for political risk consultancy Stratfor.

"But the risk is that it will embolden the opposition forces to demand more concessions."

A Reuters witness said Tunisian soldiers had barricaded a commercial district of Tunis where youths were breaking windows and throwing stones. They fired tear gas and rounds in the air to disperse them. There was no sign of any wounded.

An official at Tunisia's powerful umbrella union UGTT, which has been demanding labour reforms since Ben Ali's removal, told Reuters that Ghannouchi's resignation was "a step in the right direction".

A spokesman for Tunisia's main Islamist group, Ennahda, said the move could pave the way to broader participation in the interim government. Ennahda, banned for two decades under Ben Ali's rule, had complained of being shut out of the caretaker government run by Ghannouchi.

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