Tunisia extends state of emergency, lifts curfew

Tunisia extended a state of emergency that has been in place since the country's long time autocratic president was overthrown during an uprising last month, while it ended the curfew imposed during the deadly protests, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday.

The curfew was in place since Jan. 13, the day before President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in the wake of clashes between police and protesters angry about unemployment, corruption and repression. A United Nations mission has said at least 219 people were killed in the unrest — including dozens in prison fires — while 510 were injured.

The curfew's hours had gradually been reduced in ensuing weeks. Most recently, it prevented people from walking outside or driving from midnight until 4 a.m.

The state of emergency, declared Jan. 14, forbids any public street gathering of three people or more, though that rule has rarely been enforced. It also authorizes police and security forces to use their weapons against suspects who do not turn themselves in when ordered to do so, and against fleeing suspects who cannot be apprehended.

Life in Tunisia has largely returned to normal as a caretaker government tries to stabilize the largely Muslim country ahead of elections, supposed to take place later in 2011. Stores, markets, gas stations and schools have reopened, and people have returned to work.

The marauding gangs of suspected regime loyalists who pillaged homes and businesses in the early days of upheaval have mostly faded away, though sporadic incidents persist.

There have also been questions over whether radical Islam could emerge in Tunisia. Ben Ali maintained a relentless crackdown on Islamists. His tactics drew frequent complaints from human rights groups who said he used the sweeping crackdown to justify his repressive policies.

On Friday, several Muslim fundamentalists broke away from a demonstration and stopped in front of the capital's synagogue, making anti-Semitic remarks, said Roger Bismuth, the leader of Tunisia's small, historic Jewish community.

Bismuth, however, downplayed the incident.

"There's no reason to be worried about a few inappropriate comments by a few rowdy people passing by the synagogue," he told The Associated Press.

The Tunisian Interior Ministry, in a statement carried by the official TAP news agency, said it strongly condemned the incident and said it would work to preserve religious harmony "and fight all those who incite violence or discord."