TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's government asked Saudi Arabia on Sunday whether its exiled former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is dead, and demanded his extradition if he is still alive, as thousands of people protested in the capital demanding that the caretaker government resigns.
The 74-year-old Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, following a massive popular uprising that ended his 23-year rule and prompted a wave of protest against other autocratic leaders across the Arab world.
Tunisia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement it had asked Saudi Arabia to provide information "as soon as possible" whether the ousted president's health has deteriorated or "the possibility of his death" in the wake of news reports on the matter in recent days.
The statement, reported by the official news agency TAP, also asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali following "new charges against the ousted president for his implication in severe crimes."
Those charges included an alleged role that Ben Ali played in "the commissioning of and incitement to murder and the provocation of discord among the people in driving them to kill one another," TAP said.
A United Nations mission has said at least 219 people were killed in the weeks of unrest — including dozens who died in prison fires — leading up to Ben Ali's escape. A women's group said in a report that security forces have raped, tortured and robbed people during the uprising.
The new charges come on top of claims by investigators looking into allegations that Ben Ali and his family held bank accounts and real estate in several countries aimed to launder money obtained illegally.
The call for extradition comes a day after a state TV jolted many Tunisians with a report showing investigators unearthing what they claimed were troves of jewels, cash and other riches in a secret safe tucked behind a bookshelf in a former Ben Ali palace.
The television report showed investigators poring over tightly wrapped stacks of high-denomination dollars, euros and other foreign currencies, and showcased an array of diamond- and emerald-studded necklaces and other jewelry in finely crafted wooden cases at the palace in the posh Tunis suburb of Sidi Bousaid.
The report said the find is a result of an investigation led by Abdelfattah Amor, a respected Tunisian law professor, into alleged corruption and other abuses of the Ben Ali regime.
Amor told the program that the value of the "fortune" would be evaluated among the members of his investigative panel and state notaries, and would be kept in the safes of Tunisia's central bank.
"After the legal procedures, it will have to be returned to the Tunisian people," he said.
Also Sunday, several thousand protesters swarmed on the governmental palace to demand the ouster of the provisional government headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi — a longtime ally of Ben Ali.
Ghannouchi has said he will leave power after shepherding Tunisia through the transition period toward democracy — including elections to give the country new leadership in place of the caretaker government.
Police briefly fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.
Some demonstrators said the march was aimed to show discontent over police's harsh measures against protesters last month in Tunis, and express concerns that the Tunisian revolution could be co-opted by the old guard.