- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Four ministers quit Tunisia’s day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime.

All who resigned were opponents of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s iron-fisted 23-year rule and had been named to the government Monday. It was not immediately clear if the resignations could bring down the government, which has 40 full and junior ministers.

Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali.

Riot police in shielded helmets pummeled a protester to the ground with batons and boot kicks as other officers fired off tear gas grenades to disperse a crowd of several hundred demonstrators.

“I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people. The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years,” said Ines Mawdud, a 22-year-old student among protesters at the demonstration.

Tunisia’s Ennahdha Islamist party said its members also marched Tuesday — something that was unthinkable during the rule of Ben Ali, who banned the group and waged an ongoing crackdown against it.

A month of unrest has devastated the Mediterranean nation’s tourist industry. Thousands of tourists have been evacuated, and Germany’s tour operator TUI AG said Tuesday it is canceling all departures to Tunisia through Feb. 15.

Junior Minister for Transportation and Equipment Anouar Ben Gueddour told The Associated Press Tuesday that he had resigned along with Houssine Dimassi, the labor minister, and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui.

The three ministers are all members of a top labor union, the UGTT, which is not a party but is a movement that acts like a lobby and has a big nationwide base to mobilize people around the country.

The group’s supporters staged the protest in central Tunis on Tuesday, calling for a general strike, constitutional changes and the release of all imprisoned union leaders.

Health Minister Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the FDLT opposition party also resigned, party member Hedi Raddaoui told The AP. The culture minister, Moufida Tlatli, told The AP she was considering resigning but was consulting her supporters first.

Tunisia’s interim leaders have sought to stabilize the country after riots, looting and an apparent settling-of-scores after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

In an attempt to distance themselves from the ousted president, the country’s interim president and prime minister on Tuesday quit Ben Ali’s political party. The RCD party also kicked out Ben Ali, its founder, national television reported. It was not immediately clear how protesters would greet those moves.

On a back street off Avenue Bourguiba, a key thoroughfare where the clashes took place, about 50 UGTT members waved union flags and cheering. One sign read “RCD out” in English.

Union leaders said protesters calling for the RCD to be disbanded held peaceful demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, the city where virulent criticism of Ben Ali’s government first erupted last month, and two other towns.

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