New Tunisian government upbeat after first meeting

Tunisia's fragile new government sought Thursday to calm compatriots seething at the party that reigned supreme for 23 years and to reunite a country scarred by deadly riots.

The army fired warning shots to calm a noisy but peaceful protest in front of the long-ruling RCD party's headquarters, where demonstrators took down a huge sign and demanded that the government — dominated by members of the old guard — be dismantled, too.

Ministers in the multiparty Cabinet met for four hours Thursday afternoon and came out showing a united front.

The government suggested that Islamists imprisoned under ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would be amnestied. It pledged to make security the top priority, to prepare for new presidential elections and speed up political reforms, new government spokesman Tayyib Al Bakouchi told reporters.

The ministers pledged to restore goods and real estate appropriated by the ruling party under Ben Ali, to reopen schools shuttered by violence and remove security forces stationed at universities.

"We will not sleep until normalcy returns to all aspects of life in country," Al Bakouchi said.

The government declared three days of national mourning, and held a moment of silence for the dozens of people killed in nearly a month of unrest leading up to Ben Ali's departure Friday.

Higher Education Minister Naguib Ahmed Ibrahim said that all political prisoners would be released no matter what their ideology. While he didn't use the word Islamist, that appeared to include activists banned or jailed under Ben Ali for promoting political Islam.

"I am optimistic," said Ahmed Ounaies, under secretary of state of the government. "We believe in speaking to the people. The progression is like a speedy express train."

Slim Amamou, a blogger who was named to the government this week, tweeted throughout the meeting and at the end told reporters, "This is a good government."

Tensions remained in the country, however.

Earlier Thursday, the army fired a barrage of warning shots in the capital as demonstrators converged on the headquarters of the RCD party. Protesters dismantled the sign bearing its name, carrying off pieces of its red letters.

The building was being protected by an army tank in addition to numerous trucks and troops.

Demonstrators have criticized the country's new unity government for being mostly made up of politicians from the RCD, which was founded by Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

The crowd of protesters swelled to 2,000 people Thursday, many chanting: "The people want the government down!" Others waved baguettes to symbolize the need to end food shortages.

One father, Ahmad al-Ouni, brought his children aged 8 and 4 to the demonstration with a backpack of snacks and juice.

"I want them to smell their free country and to see the new Tunis without fear," al-Ouni said while his children used colored pens to draw Tunisian flags on paper.

The caretaker government is now struggling to calm this moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West's fight against terrorism.

One minister, a former member of the ruling party, resigned Thursday before the Cabinet meeting, the official TAP news agency said. Zouheir M'dhaffer was a member of Ben Ali's party but was not considered close to the ousted leader. Four other ministers resigned earlier in the week.

Several members of the interim government who had belonged to the RCD quit the party. Following the resignations, the party dissolved its central committee, according to TAP.

While police repeatedly shot at protesters in the weeks leading up to Ben Ali's ouster, the army has been playing more of a peacekeeping role since it was brought in last week.

Soldiers are protecting strategic sites and public buildings, and have been manning checkpoints around the capital, but there have been no reports of them shooting at unarmed civilians since Ben Ali left. It is unclear whether the army could emerge in a leadership role in this still unstable country.

A top general fired in the dying moments of Ben Ali's regime is back in the picture. Gen. Rachid Ammar is now helping lead efforts to restore security, according to a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of security affairs.

The central bank, meanwhile, saw a leadership change, as a senior World Bank official returned to his native Tunisia to take over the bank. Mustapha Kamel Nabli replaced Taoufik Baccar, who resigned following rumors that the president's wife fled with a huge stash of gold.

The bank issued a statement denying reports that 1.5 tons of gold was embezzled.

Swiss officials froze all assets tied to Ben Ali's family, and the European Union is considering a similar move.