Women protest at the funeral of Chokri Belaid in Tunis on Friday. (AP)
Tunis, Feb. 8 (Reuters): Police and mourners clashed at the mass funeral today of secular Opposition leader Chokri Belaid, whose assassination has plunged Tunisia deeper into political crisis.
Braving chilly rain, at least 50,000 people turned out to honour Belaid in his home district of Jebel al-Jaloud in the capital, chanting anti-Islamist and anti-government slogans.
It was Tunisia’s biggest funeral since the death of Habib Bourguiba, independence leader and first President, in 2000.
Violence erupted near the cemetery as police fired tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones and set cars ablaze. Police also used tear gas against protesters near the interior ministry, a frequent flashpoint for clashes in the Tunisian capital.
Tunisia, cradle of the Arab uprisings, is riven by tensions between dominant Islamists and their secular opponents, and by frustration at the lack of social and economic progress since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011.
Belaid’s assassination has shocked a country which had hitherto experienced a relatively peaceful political transition. “The people want a new revolution,” shouted mourners in Tunis, who also sang the national anthem. Crowds surged around an open army truck carrying Belaid’s coffin, draped in a red and white Tunisian flag, from a cultural centre in Jebel al-Jaloud towards the leafy Jallaz cemetery, as a security forces helicopter flew overhead.
“Belaid, rest in peace, we will continue the struggle,” mourners chanted, holding portraits of the politician killed near his home on Wednesday by a gunman who fled on a motorcycle.
Some demonstrators denounced Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party.“Ghannouchi, assassin, criminal,” they chanted. “Tunisia is free, terrorism out.”
Police fired tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters throwing stones and petrol bombs in the southern mining town of Gafsa, a stronghold of support for Belaid, witnesses said.
Crowds there had chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime”, a slogan first used against Ben Ali.
In Sidi Bouzid, the southern town where the revolt against the ousted strongman began, about 10,000 marched to mourn Belaid and shout slogans against Ennahda and the government.
Banks, factories and some shops were closed in Tunis and other cities in response to a strike called by unions in protest at Belaid’s killing, but buses were running normally.
After Belaid’s assassination, Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali, an Islamist, said he would dissolve the government and form a cabinet of technocrats to rule until elections could be held. But his own Ennahda party and its secular coalition partners complained they had not been consulted, casting doubt over the status of the government.