- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia | Tunisia’s government issued an international arrest warrant Wednesday for ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and six relatives, accusing him of taking money out of the North African nation illegally.

Mr. Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after being driven from power this month by violent protests, also was being charged with illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said.

Interpol said its Tunis bureau issued a global alert seeking the arrest of Mr. Ben Ali and six family members, without specifying who. Mr. Chebbi said Mr. Ben Ali’s wife, Leila, was among those wanted by Tunisian authorities.

As Mr. Chebbi spoke, Tunisian police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who have been pressuring the interim government to get rid of old guard ministers who served under Mr. Ben Ali.

The clashes broke out in front of the prime minister’s office in Tunis, the capital. Some demonstrators responded by throwing stones at police.

Several injured protesters were carted away from the melee. Others tried to smash the windows of a police van, covering the ground with blood. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Mr. Ben Ali, his wife and their clan have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves: In France, where family members are believed to have assets ranging from apartments to racehorses, Paris prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into their holdings.

French media have reported that Leila Ben Ali left the country with millions in gold, but Tunisia’s new central bank governor, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, says no gold was taken from the bank’s vaults during the final days of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime.

The former president fled Jan. 14 after 23 years in power, pushed out by weeks of protests driven by anger over joblessness, repression and corruption. His swift departure was followed by riots, looting and unrest.

On Wednesday, the justice minister highlighted the scope of that unrest: Some 11,029 prisoners - about a third of the country’s prison population - were able to escape amid the chaos, he said. Of those, 1,532 prisoners have returned behind bars and 74 other prisoners died in fires that broke out.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, wrapped up a three-day visit in Tunis on Wednesday, rejecting speculation that the United States was involved in Mr. Ben Ali’s removal.

“This is a revolution by Tunisians for Tunisians, and the United States was not involved,” Mr. Feltman told reporters, crediting the interim government for greater openness and steps toward political reform.

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