TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian army reservists reported for duty Wednesday after being recalled by the interim government struggling to impose order following the toppling of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a month ago.
Between 400 and 500 turned up at a main mobilisation centre at Bouchoucha, in the suburbs of the capital Tunis, on the first day of a recall of recently retired soldiers and ex-conscripts to bolster the army, an AFP reporter said.
The defence ministry last week ordered them to report to bases closest to their homes as the authorities battle instability, on Tuesday extending indefinitely a state of emergency imposed as Ben Ali fled on January 14.
Reservist Mohsen Jaziri, 25, told AFP at the Bouchoucha centre that he and his comrades were to be transferred to barracks in the capital for fast-track training before being deployed on army patrols.
They expected to be mobilised for six months, a term which could be renewed, he said.
“I am returning to the army because I am afraid of legal proceedings if I don’t respond to the order, and anyway to wear a uniform in this historic time in our country is an honour for Tunisians,” he said.
The army numbers about 45,000 troops and has been praised by Tunisians for refusing orders to fire on demonstrators in the weeks of protests that ended Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.
It has been largely responsible for public security since then, although vastly outnumbered by the police force which is despised by locals for carrying out orders to shoot.
More than 200 people were killed in the demonstrations, which erupted mid-December and first focused on unemployment and food costs.
Extending the state of emergency on Tuesday, the government warned of attempts to incite violence including against the Jewish minority and between the army and police force.
It however lifted an overnight curfew that was imposed in the days before Ben Ali’s dramatic escape to Saudi Arabia.
With security lax, there has been a spate of looting and theft across the country as citizens stream to government offices to demand help or the removal of members of the previous regime still in positions of authority.
Meanwhile, officials continued to digest to fallout of Ben Ali’s marathon tenure, during which the former first couple and their inner circle are suspected in pocketing much of the country’s wealth and taking personal stakes in vast chunks of the economy.
On Wednesday, Tunisia’s central bank president Mustapha Kamel Nabli announced banks funded businesses linked to the ex-first clan to the tune of 1.3 billion euros (Tunisian dinar equivalent of $1.75 billion).
The amount was the equivalent of five percent of all financing by the Tunisian banking sector, Nabli said, and nearly 30 percent of the cash was provided with no guarantees of repayment.
The interim government, tasked with leading the country to elections within six months, has been criticised for including figures from Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime such as Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi.
Some new ministers have meanwhile accused Ben Ali loyalists in the administration and police of fomenting unrest in an attempt to derail the transition to democracy.
The interim authority is also under pressure to stop illegal migration after about 5,000 immigrants, most of them Tunisians, arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa over about five days starting last week.
Tunisia has moved troops into its coastal areas in a bid to halt the sea crossings as Europe’s border control agency plans operations to intercept the migrants, who complain little has improve since Ben Ali left.
The security vacuum was illustrated by the escape from a jail in the southern town of Gabes Tuesday of 36 prisoners, with local police saying there had been no guards at the facility. Sixteen were still on the loose Wednesday.
The justice ministry said on January 26 that more than 11,000 of the country’s 31,000 prisoners had escaped during the uprising against Ben Ali.
Only about 1,500 of them had heeded a call to return to their jails, it said.
Protests also continued with 100 miners from the central region of Gafsa entering the 10th day of a sit-in in the capital Tunis in a wage protest as businesses in the city were on strike to protest competition from street hawkers, an AFP photographer said.
The groundswell of protests that toppled Ben Ali in January also touched off similar anti-government movements across the Arab world, including the mass uprising in Egypt that ousted veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak on Friday.