Warrant issued for ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and family accused of theft from central bank, with seven relatives of ex-president's wife Leila Trabelsi in custody and others fled abroad.

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TUNIS // Tunisia issued an international arrest warrant yesterday for Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president who fled the country two weeks ago.

Mr Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and members of their family are accused of illegally taking money abroad and plundering the country's central bank.

Tunisia's justice minister, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, said authorities want to try Mr Ben Ali and his clan for "possessing expropriated property and transferring foreign currency abroad".

Mr Ben Ali stepped down abruptly on January 14 after weeks of sometimes deadly protests over unemployment and corruption that ended with calls for his resignation. He is now in Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia is being run by an interim coalition government with the task of with organising new presidential and legislative elections in the coming months, and keen to win over Tunisians who object to its dominance by former political allies of Mr Ben Ali.

The government was announcing changes to the cabinet last night to fill five posts vacated by ministers who have backed out amid daily protests against Mr Ben Ali's party, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).

Police fired tear gas yesterday at hundreds of protesters outside the prime minister's office demanding that the RCD get out of politics. Several protesters responded by throwing stones at the police.

The government has sought to distance itself from Mr Ben Ali and hunt down his extended family, who amassed considerable wealth and are accused of large-scale corruption during his 23 years of repressive rule.

Authorities said last week that they had arrested 33 relatives of Mrs Trabelsi, who is loathed by many Tunisians. The clan has dominated Tunisia's business world and gained control of major companies, allegedly through corrupt means.

After Mr Ben Ali's departure, it was reported that he had made off with 1.5 tonnes of gold removed from Tunisia's central bank by Mrs Trabelsi. Sumptuous houses owned by the family were looted.

Yesterday Mr Chebbi, the justice minister, named seven members of the Trabelsi family in custody, but said that Mrs Trabelsi's nephew, Imed Trabelsi, and Mr Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher al Materi, had fled abroad. Authorities have also asked Interpol to seek Mrs Trabelsi's brother, Belhassan Trabelsi, Mr Chebbi said.

Police arrested the owner of the Hannibal TV station and his son last Saturday on accusations of treason, but later released them. The two were described by authorities as relatives by marriage of Mrs Trabelsi.

The government also said yesterday that courts would try six members of Mr Ben Ali's security force, including its commander, Ali Seriati, accused of fomenting violence that led to several days of gun battles with the army after the former president fled.

Calm is returning to Tunisia, with police and soldiers gradually withdrawing from the streets of central Tunis as cafes and shops reopen. However, the country faces grave economic problems that set the stage for the toppling of Mr Ben Ali.

While the economy has grown in recent years and living standards in northern cities are on par with Europe, unemployment is high among young people and in rural areas where the protests of the past month began.

The government has said that 78 people died in the unrest, in which police opened fire on protesters. Authorities have claimed that police used force only in self-defence, or to protect lives and public property.

Mr Chebbi said yesterday that more than 11,000 prisoners - more than a third of Tunisia's prison population - were able to escape from jails as security forces were stretched thin. On January 15, the day after Mr Ben Ali left, dozens of prisoners were killed in a mass breakout from a prison in the town of Mahdia, and 42 died in a prison riot in the seaside city of Monastir.