TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian authorities said on Thursday they had detained an armed group, linked to ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, which they suspected of involvement in a wave of violence.
While security forces wrestled with persistent unrest, an official for the first time laid out a blueprint for how the country, subject to de facto one-party rule for most of its history, would hold democratic elections.
Weeks of protests forced Ben Ali last month to flee the country in a revolt which inspired uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, but since then protests and rioting have raised questions about whether stability can be restored.
Security officials in the coalition government put in place after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia have said there is a conspiracy by officials close to the old administration to spread chaos and take back power.
Tunisian security forces assisted by the military arrested the group and seized weapons from them, the official TAP news agency said.
“Their arrest was conducted following their involvement in last week’s painful and bloody events in the city of El Kef,” it said, referring to clashes in the northern town between police and protesters in which two people were killed.
The group is also “suspected of involvement in suspicious activity and smuggling and corruption operations in cooperation with relatives of the ex-president,” the agency said.
Security had seemed to be slowly returning to Tunisia three weeks after Ben Ali and the closest members of his family fled the country. But in the past few days army reservists have been called up to help restore order after violence flared up again.
At least five people have been killed in provincial towns since Friday, including the two shot dead in El Kef.
Many of the Tunisians who celebrated Ben Ali’s overthrow after 23 years of autocratic rule are now impatient for evidence that life will be better under the new system.
The head of a state commission for political reform said that he believed an election to choose a new president would happen by mid-July and it would be free and fair for the first time in Tunisia’s history.
“My personal view is that we need to have a presidential election within a maximum of six months (after Ben Ali’s overthrow),” Iyadh Ben Achour told Reuters in an interview.
“We have one objective and we will do everything in the service of that objective: the objective is to carry out real elections for the first time in Tunisia.”
“That is the fundamental objective. I will not retreat from that one inch. I will resign if ever that objective is forgotten,” he said.
Tunisia’s interim government, a coalition of Ben Ali-era technocrats, opposition leaders and independents, said after a cabinet meeting that it was taking practical steps to recover “smuggled and plundered funds and assets” from members of the ex-president’s entourage.
The country’s economy has taken a battering over the past two months, with tourist visits -- a crucial source of revenue -- down and strike action affecting many sectors.
State-owned phone operator Tunisie Telecom said it was cancelling a plan for an initial public offering on the Paris and Tunis stocks exchanges after trade unions representing its workers threatened strike action.
The listing would have been the first by a Tunisian firm on a European bourse but, like many business projects, it has been in limbo since Ben Ali’s overthrow.
Writing by Souhail Karam and Christian Lowe; editing by Andrew Roche