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Tunisia's Islamists try to restore calm

TUNIS -- Tunisia's ruling Islamists dissolved the government and promised rapid elections Wednesday in a bid to restore calm after the killing of an opposition leader sparked the biggest street protests since the revolution two years ago.

The prime minister's announcement that an interim cabinet of technocrats would replace his Islamist-led coalition came at the end of a day that had begun with the gunning down of Chokri Belaid, a left-wing lawyer with a modest political following but who spoke for many who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Protesters battled police in the streets of the capital and other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

In Tunis, the crowd set fire to the headquarters of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party, which won the most seats in an legislative election 16 months ago.

Calls for a general strike today could bring more trouble, though Belaid's family said his funeral, another possible flashpoint, might not be held until Friday.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda spoke on television last evening to declare that weeks of talks among the various political parties on reshaping the government had failed and that he would replace his entire cabinet with nonpartisan technocrats until elections could be held as soon as possible.

It followed weeks of deadlock in the three-party coalition. The small, secular Congress for the Republic, whose leader Moncef Marzouki has served as Tunisia's president, threatened to withdraw unless Ennahda replaced some of its ministers.

Yesterday's events, in which the Interior Ministry said a police officer was killed, appeared to have moved Jebali, staying on as premier, to take action.

"The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution," he said.

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