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Friday, February 8, 2013 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.
Tunisians mass for slain leader's funeral
By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA
Tens of thousands of Tunisians chanting anti-government slogans converged on a cemetery for the funeral of an assassinated leftist opposition politician as military helicopters hovered overhead amid fears that tensions could boil over into further violence.
Mourners came from all over the country to mark the passing of 48-year-old lawyer Chokri Belaid, who was gunned down in front of his house Wednesday, sparking off days of anti-government rioting.
"I am apolitical but came from 70 kilometers away because I liked Belaid, he defended the poor and loved his country," said Nouri Abdel Jalil as he waited at the cemetery for the funeral procession.
Once the standard bearer in the region for its political consensus, Tunisia is embroiled in its worst crisis since the 2011 revolution that overthrew its long-ruling dictator and inspired the Arab Spring. The country's transition to democracy has been shaken by a sour economy and political turmoil pitting the country's governing Islamists against secular parties, sometimes violently.
Near Belaid's parental home where the process was set to begin, opposition politicians, lawyers in black robes and thousands of mourners gathered, chanting "stop the violence" and "we are all Chokri Belaid."
Much of the city has been shut down by a general strike called by the unions in protest over the assassination and most flights to the country have been canceled.
The harsh government critic had accused the ruling Islamist Ennahda party of resorting to thugs to attack opposition rallies. His family and allies accuse the party of complicity in his Wednesday killing. Although they have offered no proof, the allegations have sharply raised tensions ahead of the funeral.
More than a dozen headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked overnight in towns around the country, Tunisian media reported. Schools, shops, banks and other institutions were all shuttered following the general strike.
The army was providing security for the funeral procession, a decision that may be key in preventing more violence because it remains a respected institution in the country, unlike the much-reviled police. Several times in the past year, the army has had to be called out in rioting towns to replace police forces that only seem to further antagonize protesters.
Tunisia's prime minister offered to replace the government after Belaid's killing in response to long standing opposition demands, but that attempt may have backfired as his own ruling Islamist part rejected his decision - exposing divisions within the party itself between moderates and hardliners.
The Ministry of the Interior put out a statement Friday urging calm, but the police force has been a major target of protesters over the past few days.
The ministry building itself on Friday morning was ringed by several lawyers of iron barriers and barbed wire extending across the city's signature Bourguiba Avenue, where it has been a focus of protests.
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