Tunisia seeks international warrant for arrest of despised, deposed president

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Tunisia requested an international arrest warrant yesterday for its ousted president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, as a minister revealed that 11,000 prisoners had escaped during the unrest which continues nearly two weeks after the tumultuous uprising.

Mr Ben Ali is wanted on charges of illegally taking money out of Tunisia and unlawfully acquiring real estate and other assets abroad. Anger at his regime continues to resonate on the streets, with police yesterday firing teargas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters furious that the hastily cobbled-together interim government includes ministers who served under the deposed president.

Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said Tunisia had sought Interpol's help to arrest Mr Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on the night of 14 January as thousands of protesters thronged the streets of Tunis demanding an end to his 23-year autocratic rule.

"We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled – including the president and this woman – for trial in Tunisia," Mr Chebbi said. "This woman" is Mr Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, reviled by many Tunisians who accuse the first couple of using their positions to enrich themselves as economic problems gripped the rest of the country.

Mrs Trabelsi reportedly fled the Arab nation with up to $37.5m in gold bars, although the central bank has denied that its vaults are missing the one-and-a-half tons of bullion.

In a sign of the scale of the unrest facing Tunisia, Mr Chebbi said 11,029 prisoners – one third of the nation's inmates – had escaped during the protests that led to Mr Ben Ali's flight. Only 1,500 were back behind bars, he said.

In other moves yesterday to placate irate demonstrators, Mr Chebbi said six members of the presidential guard would be put on trial for inciting violence, while the state news agency reported that another ministerial reshuffle was on the cards, with the interior, defence and foreign minister expected to go.