Salafist protester killed in clash with police over banned meeting in Tunisia

Salafist protester killed in clash with police over banned meeting in Tunisia

TUNIS - Agence France-Presse
Salafist protester killed in clash with police over banned meeting in Tunisia

A Tunisian police officer clashes with radical Islamist movement Ansar al-Shariah supporters, in Ettadhamen, near Tunis, May 19. AP photo

One protester died and several were injured when Tunisian Islamists defied a ban on their demonstration and clashed with police on May 19.

The 27-year-old man was killed in the violence in the capital Tunis which continued into the evening, the state news agency said. A Reuters witness saw several others injured at the protest in support of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group.

In the central city of Kairouan, where tens of thousands of members of Ansar al-Sharia had been due to attend the main rally, protesters threw stones at police, who fired teargas in response.

Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge in Tunisia since secular dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, and poses a test to the authority of the moderate Islamist government.

While the situation in Kairouan had calmed down by May 19 evening, clashes continued in Tunis where police arrested dozens of people in the Ettadamen neighbourhood where Islamists chanted: "The rule of the tyrant should fall."

Police fired teargas and shots into the air to disperse some 500 stone-throwing protesters, some of whom set fire to cars, lowered the Tunisian flag and replaced it with a black al Qaeda banner.

The state news agency identified the dead man as Moez Dahmani but did not say how he died.  Buses and the subway stopped working and shops in the neighbourhood were closed, while military aircraft patrolled overhead. Clashes spread to two other areas of the capital.

Tunisia's new government is led by a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, but hardline Salafists are seeking a broader role for religion, alarming a secular elite which fears this could undermine individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.
Ban sparks anger

The Interior Ministry announced on May 19 a ban on the gathering of Ansar al-Sharia, "which has shown disdain for state institutions, incited violence against them and poses a threat to public security".

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said on Saturday the group was linked to terrorism. The same day, the regional arm of al Qaeda issued a statement urging Ansar al-Sharia to defy the government crackdown.

The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist statements, said al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb encouraged the Tunisian Islamists to continue their "good steps" and beware of provocations by the government. 

Ansar al-Sharia said it would hold its rally in Kairouan next week, something which may prolong the tensions.

The group said police had arrested its spokesman Saifeddine Rais, but it was not clear where or when. A security source confirmed he had been detained.

The group's leader Saifallah Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh, is a former al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan and is wanted by police for allegedly inciting an attack on the U.S. embassy in September. Four people were killed in those disturbances, which began as a protest over a film that mocked the Prophet Mohammad.