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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Four ministers quit Tunisia's day-old government on Tuesday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime.
All who resigned were opponents of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's iron-fisted 23-year rule and had been named to the government Monday. It was not immediately clear if the resignations could bring down the government, which has 40 full and junior ministers.
Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding that the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali.
Riot police in shielded helmets pummeled a protester to the ground with batons and boot kicks as other officers fired off tear gas grenades to disperse a crowd of several hundred demonstrators.
"I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people. The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years," said Ines Mawdud, a 22-year-old student among protesters at the demonstration.
A month of unrest has devastasted the Mediterranean nation's tourist industry. Thousands of tourists have been evacuated, and Germany's tour operator TUI AG said Tuesday it is cancelling all departures to Tunisia through Feb. 15.
Junior Minister for Transportation and Equipment Anouar Ben Gueddour told The Associated Press Tuesday that he had resigned along with Houssine Dimassi, the labor minister, and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui.
The three ministers are all members of a top labor union, the UGTT, which is not a party but is a movement that acts like a lobby and has a big nationwide base to mobilize people around the country.
The group's supporters staged the protest in central Tunis on Tuesday, calling for a general strike, constitutional changes and the release of all imprisoned union leaders.
Health Minister Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the FDLT opposition party also resigned, party member Hedi Raddaoui told The AP. The culture minister, Moufida Tlatli, told The AP she was considering resigning but was consulting her supporters first.
Tunisia's interim leaders have sought to stabilize the country after riots, looting and an apparent settling-of-scores after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.
On a back street off Avenue Bourguiba, a key thoroughfare where the clashes took place, about 50 UGTT members waved union flags and cheering. One sign read "RCD out" in English — a reference to the party of Ben Ali.
Union leaders said protesters calling for the RCD to be disbanded held peaceful demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, the city where virulent criticism of Ben Ali's government first erupted last month, and two other towns.
Tuesday, political leader Moncef Marzouki returned from than 20 years of exile in France to a joyful reception at Tunis' airport from supporters of political leader who carried him on their shoulders.
Marzouki, a physician who leads the once-banned CPR party and wants to run for president, urged fellow Tunisians to hold firm in their efforts to bring down Ben Ali's party.
"Don't let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you," said Marzouki. "Don't waste the blood of our martyrs. We don't want any revenge, but we are fast with our principle that this horrible party does not return."
Mohamed Ghannouchi, who has been prime minister since 1999, claimed that his announcement Monday that he was including ministers from Ben Ali's party in the new government was needed "because we need them in this phase."
Tunisia has entered "an era of liberty," Ghannouchi said in an interview with France's Europe-1 radio posted on its website. "Give us a chance so that we can put in place this ambitious program of reform."
He insisted the ministers chosen "have clean hands, in addition to great competence," suggesting that experienced officials are needed along with opposition leaders in a caretaker government to guide the country before free elections are held in coming months.
Ghannouchi pledged Monday to free political prisoners and lift restrictions on a leading human rights group, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. He said the government would create three state commissions to study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine abuses during the recent upheaval.
The protests that forced out Ben Ali began last month after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate act hit a nerve, sparking copycat suicides and focused anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.
Public protests spread over years of state repression, corruption, and a shortage of jobs for many educated young adults. The government announced Monday that 78 civilians have died in the month of unrest.
Reports of self-immolations surfaced in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria on Monday, in apparent imitation of the Tunisian events.
The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in the region.
British Foreign Minister William Hague warned that it would be wrong to expect events in Tunisia to spark similar protests against other authoritarian regimes in the region.
"It's important to avoid thinking that the circumstances of one country are automatically replicated in another, even neighboring, country," he told BBC radio, speaking Tuesday during a visit to Australia.