Tunisia calls up reserve troops amid unrest

Tunisia's Defense Ministry called up recently retired troops Monday as the country struggled to contain unrest that has persisted even after the ouster of the North African country's dictatorial regime.

A statement published by official news agency TAP asked soldiers who have retired within the past five years, as well as youths who recently completed military service, to report for duty starting Sunday. It was not immediately clear how many reinforcements the move would bring.

Tunisia has been trying to restore order since former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile Jan. 14 following a month of nationwide anti-government protests.

Unrest has continued since then in some regions, in the form of looting and unrest by gangs of knife-roaming thugs. There are widespread fears that Ben Ali loyalists are encouraging anarchy to upset what Tunisians call a "people's revolution."

This weekend brought the worst violence in Tunisia since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years in power. Crowds pillaged and burned a police station in the northwestern city of Kef, a day after police shot dead at least two demonstrators.

The country, meanwhile, continues to prepare for presidential elections, which are expected in six months. On Sunday, Tunisia's interior minister suspended all activities of the country's longtime ruling party.

Authorities have been removing traces of the Ben Ali regime, notably by replacing government members with strong connections to Ben Ali, but for many the change is not coming fast enough.

On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators in Tunisia's capital tried to block lawmakers from taking part in a vote to give the interim president strong temporary powers in the runup to the election. Lawmakers eventually bypassed demonstrators by accessing the voting hall through a service door, the TAP news agency reported. In a 177-16 vote, the lower house approved a plan to give Interim President Fouad Mebazaa temporary powers to pass laws by decree. The issue goes to the upper house Wednesday.

Rachida Neifer, a university professor among the demonstrators, said protesters believe that parliament — still dominated by members of the longtime ruling party — lost its legitimacy once Ben Ali was ousted. Demonstrators want a new constitution, she said.

Tunisia's prime minister has appealed for international aid to help offset economic losses estimated in the billions of dollars following the country's weeks of unrest.

Mohammmed Ghannouchi said in an interview published in the Financial Times that the cost to the Tunisian economy of the weeks of anti-government protests are between $5 billion and $8 billion, "and the needs going forward are even more significant."

"We must undertake massive and speedy investment in the regions, especially in the most underprivileged regions," he said.