Violence at Tunisia funeral

Wednesday’s killing of Opposition Leader deepens the political crisis

Protesters burning cars next to the cemetery where thousands of Tunisians gathered to attend the funerals of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid, near Tunis, yesterday. Photo: PA

Protesters burning cars next to the cemetery where thousands of Tunisians gathered to attend the funerals of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid, near Tunis, yesterday. Photo: PA

The funeral of a murdered Tunisian Opposition Leader was yesterday marred by clashes between police and gangs of young men attempting to steal mourners’ cars.

Black smoke spiralled from burning vehicles into the sky and clouds of tear gas floated over the nearby cemetery.

Tens of thousands of Tunisians chanting anti-government slogans converged on the Jellaz cemetery for the funeral of Chokri Belaid, a left-wing politician whose assassination on Wednesday outside his home has deepened Tunisia’s political crisis.

Mr Belaid’s funeral procession passed into the cemetery amid a scene of chaos caught live on television. Gangs of young men threw rocks at police trying to stop them stealing cars, and police responded with tear gas.

TV images showed the youths pushing cars into the street, and the cars bursting into flame.

Witnesses described the young men in tracksuits – many armed with clubs and machetes – as hooligans seeking to take advantage of the turmoil surrounding the funeral.

The murder of Mr Belaid, a harsh critic of the Islamist government, sparked days of rioting by his supporters, who hold the ruling Ennahda party complicit in his death.

The nation was largely shut down due to a general strike called by the labour unions in solidarity, and the national carrier Tunis Air cancelled all its flights.

Once the standard bearer in the region for its political consensus, Tunisia’s transition to democracy since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been shaken by a weak economy and political turmoil pitting the country’s governing Islamists against secular parties, sometimes violently.

Efforts to stem the country’s worst crisis since the revolution have so far failed.

Before the body arrived, there was a brief scuffle when officials identified as being with the governing coalition were stopped by the crowd from entering.

The army, one of the few state institutions still holding people’s respect, provided security for the funeral march and could play the role of a stabilising force in the coming weeks.

Mr Belaid had accused the Ennahda party of resorting to thugs to attack opposition rallies.

His family and allies accuse the party of complicity in his murder. Although they have offered no proof, the allegations have fanned popular dissatisfaction with the Government.

“We can’t accept that they assassinate freedom, that they assassinate democracy – that’s what they are doing – we are burying a martyr,” said Mohammed Souissi, a 63-year-old vet who showed up at the cemetery, where the crowd seemed unfazed by the intermittent rain, sang the national anthem and chanted “Ghannouchi assassin”, a reference to Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda.

Near Mr Belaid’s parental home where the funeral procession began, opposition politicians and lawyers in black robes and white collars gathered with thousands of other mourners, chanting “stop the violence” and “we are all Chokri Belaid”.

More than a dozen headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked overnight in towns around the country, Tunisian media reported.

Schools, shops, banks and other institutions were all shuttered following the general strike.

Tunisia’s Prime Minister offered to replace the government after Mr Belaid’s killing in response to long standing opposition demands, but that attempt may have backfired as Ennahda rejected his decision – exposing divisions within the party itself between moderates and hard­liners.


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