Tunisian army fights running street battles with gunmen loyal to the ousted president
By Adrian Blomfield, in Tunis
Tunisia's army used helicopter gunships to battle back attacks by gunmen loyal to the ousted president as divided factions of the regime engaged in fierce clashes on the streets of Tunis.
Gun battles at the Presidential Palace, Central Bank and Interior Ministry grew steadily more widespread during Sunday overshadowing efforts to bring the opposition into a government of national unity.
Two days after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee the Arab world's first popular uprising in 50 years, the army's efforts to restore order in the capital city appeared to be floundering.
Members of Mr Ben Ali's presidential guards seized control of high-rise buildings in the centre of Tunis for over an hour yesterday evening.
From rooftops close to the central bank and interior ministry, highly trained snipers opened fire on army positions along Avenue Bourguiba, the city's main thoroughfare.
Civilians ran for cover as the exchanges of gunfire escalated, abating only after helicopter gunships struck to flush the partisans out.
Yet there was little to suggest that the presidential guard, which stands to lose the most from its patron's exile, is beaten.
Earlier in the day, the former president's loyalists launched a separate attack outside the headquarters of a major opposition party, the PDP. Two gunman were killed by the army and two people carrying Swedish passports and four people with German passports were arrested by police with weapons.
It came as opposition leaders began talks with the ruling party on forming a new unity government that will begin preparing for an election to choose Mr Ben Ali's successor.
Some in the opposition sought to strike a positive note.
"We are in agreement on several principles concerning the new government," said Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the Ettajdid party. "We will continue to discuss."
Three opposition leaders will take posts in a new coalition government, sources close to the negotiations said on Sunday night. Najib Chebbi, founder of the PDP, will reportedly be regional development minister.
Yet there was no disguising the large gulf that separated the two sides. Fouad Mebazza, the interim president, has announced plans to hold elections within 60 days. The opposition, which also wants guarantees that the vote will be free and fair, says that is far too soon for them to mount a proper campaign.
There are also concerns that the opposition could be prevented from fielding a presidential candidate as they could struggle to muster the necessary backing from members of parliament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party.
Mr Ben Ali may have gone, to widespread rejoicing from the people he ruled for 23 years, but Islamist activists warned that Tunisians would not be granted a new era of democracy.
"The people may be offered the appearance of freedom minus the dictator, followed by a new clampdown on Tunisian political life," said Tariq Ramadan, a leading Islamic scholar.
With the people behind them, the opposition undoubtedly has a strong hand.
But observers caution that an outpouring of revenge against supporters of Mr Ben Ali's regime could cause lasting instability.
"If we make the mistake of Iraq by pursuing a kind of debaathification, it will be a catastrophe," said Kamel Ben Younes, the editor-in-chief of Dar Assabah, a leading Tunisian newspaper.
Yet already the appetite for vengeance is increasingly evident.
Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of the president, was reportedly stabbed to death over the weekend. Other relatives have been taken into custody.
For the moment at least, the joy of the Tunisian people seems to know few bounds.
Exulting in their newfound freedom, Tunisians discovered a boldness that had long lain dormant after so many years of repressive rule, tearing down the huge banners emblazoned with Mr Ben Ali's face that dominated the Tunis cityscape.
But widespread looting has sullied the joy, worsening the already febrile atmosphere in Tunis and other cities.
With food and fuel in short supply, many of the capital's residents are running short of basic commodities. Those who ventured out into the city's market faced danger too as a sniper opened fire on shoppers. There were no injuries, this time at least.
In an effort to stem the violence being mounted by Mr Ben Ali's loyalists, police yesterday arrested the head of the presidential guard. So far at least, his detention appears to have made little difference.