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Army, regime gunmen battle in Tunisia

TUNIS, Tunisia, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- Tunisian army helicopter gunships Sunday battled gunmen loyal to the country's ousted president on the streets of Tunis, observers said.

Britain's The Telegraph newspaper said the gun battles raged between factions at the Presidential Palace, Central Bank and Interior Ministry, and the army's attempts to restore order two days after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country were failing.

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In the first popular uprising in the Arab world in 50 years, members of Ben Ali's presidential guards seized control of high-rise buildings in the center of Tunis for more than an hour before being flushed out by the gunships, the report said.

In renewed fighting, snipers opened fire on army positions along the city's main thoroughfare.

Earlier Sunday, the interim government said two top security officials for Ben Ali had been arrested.

Ali Seriati, head of Ben Ali's personal security, was caught by citizens as he tried to cross into Libya, The New York Times reported, citing state television. He was charged with conspiracy against the government.

The new interior minister said his predecessor was arrested at his home. No charges were announced. The arrests imply the two officials were linked to the violence across the country since Ben Ali fled Friday. The ousted president reportedly has fled to Saudi Arabia, but that country's government refused to comment.

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The country was in a state of emergency after two nights of rioting, arson and looting, the BBC said. The capital, Tunis, also imposed a sundown curfew.

Saturday, the constitutional council swore in Fouad Mebazaa as the caretaker leader and ordered national elections within 60 days. Mebazaa is the former president of the lower house of Parliament, the report said.

There were widely conflicting reports on the number of deaths associated with the unrest, but 42 people were confirmed dead in a prison fire in Monastir, about 100 miles south of Tunis, the BBC said.

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