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Tunisia's army chief on Monday warned anti-government protesters in the capital Tunis that a "power vacuum" could

Protests called for the resignation of Ben Ali-linked ministers

Tunisian army chief warns that 'power vacuum' in country could lead to 'dictatorship'.

 

By Ines Bel Aiba - TUNIS

 lead to dictatorship as pressure mounted on Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

"Our revolution, your revolution, the revolution of the young, risks being lost ... There are forces that are calling for a void, a power vacuum. The void brings terror, which brings dictatorship," Rachid Ammar told the crowd.

He also said the military would help safeguard the revolution that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and would respect the constitution.

He appealed to protesters to clear the ministerial quarter where they were assembled "to let this government work, this government or another one."

Ammar is hugely popular in Tunisia as the opposition says he was sacked by Ben Ali in the final days of the regime for refusing to shoot on protesters. He was then apparently reinstated by the new transition government.

There were some violent scenes at the protest earlier as thousands rallied.

Security forces fired tear gas and sealed off the area with barbed wire as some protesters threw stones, charged police lines and smashed up a police car at the start of a make-or-break week for Tunisia's new transition government.

"Resign scum!" the protesters chanted after hundreds spent the night staking out the prime minister's offices in defiance of a curfew that has been kept in place in a bid to restore order amid continuing turmoil in the country.

Many of the protesters had made their way to the capital from the impoverished rural parts of Tunisia where the uprising began and held up pictures of victims of Ben Ali's bloody crackdown in recent weeks.

"We will stay a day, two days, a month, two months, as long as it takes for this government to quit," Ali Abassi, an unemployed man from the town of Menzel Bouzaiane, who said he was the brother of one of the victims, said.

Many primary schools also remained shut despite a government order to re-open after teachers called an "unlimited" strike in protest against the national unity government installed after the end of Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

Teenagers in their final year of school returned to classes as expected.

Schools and universities were shut down by Ben Ali on January 10 in a bid to stop the protests against his regime from spreading.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which called the strike, has refused to recognise the new government because it keeps in place key figures from the ousted regime including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

Many Tunisians feel the same and have kept up daily protests since the government was announced last Monday, calling also for the destruction of Ben Ali's RCD party.

Others say it is time for calm.

"We have to make the democratic process real and irreversible and at the same time guard against the violence and anarchy that threaten our country," Rachid Sfar, a former prime minister, wrote in an editorial in La Presse daily.

Ghannouchi, who has been in place since 1999, says he will resign only after the north African state's first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

He said the vote could be held within six months but has not set a date.

France has been heavily criticised for offering support to Ben Ali during the violent crackdown by his security forces and President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday said it had "underestimated" the anger of the Tunisian people.

The government has unveiled unprecedented democratic reforms including allowing full media freedoms, releasing political prisoners and registering political parties that were banned under Ben Ali.

He fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 under pressure from a wave of social protests against his regime.

The movement began after a 26-year-old fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set fire to himself to protest police abuses in the farming town of Sidi Bouzid.

The Arab world's first popular revolt in recent history has inspired copycat self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania and Morocco.

There have also been calls for Tunisia-style protests in Sudan and Yemen.

Tunisia's government has sought to re-impose order and start up regular economic activity in the country following weeks of dramatic upheaval.

It has also arrested key Ben Ali loyalists although the head of Tunisia's private television station Hannibal TV said Monday that he had been released and that an accusation of "high treason" against him had been lifted.

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