Tunisian minister seeks to dissolve ruling party

Tunisia's interior minister on Monday sought to dissolve the political party of the country's ousted autocratic president, while the government asked Saudi Arabia to extradite the widely reviled former first lady to face justice at home.

Former President Zine El Abidine 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.

The caretaker government, which is preparing for elections later this year, has been trying to distance itself from the former regime in the North African nation. Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi on Monday formally petitioned a Tunis court to dissolve Ben Ali's longtime ruling party, the official TAP news agency reported.

Some members of the current government — including the acting prime minister — are former members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, known as the RCD. They quit the political group after Ben Ali's ouster, and the party's activities have already been suspended.

Despite those moves, protesters have continued to demand the dissolution of the RCD.

With no sign of Ben Ali since his departure, rumors have swirled about his health. On Sunday, the government said it has asked Saudi Arabia whether its exiled former president is dead and demanded his extradition if he is still alive.

On Monday, the TAP agency said the government had also asked Saudi Arabia for the extradition of Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi. Her family is said to have allegedly operated like a mafia, extorting money from business owners and demanding stakes in companies.

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and other ministers, meanwhile, met with U.S. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman.

The government also named a career diplomat Mouldi Kefi as country's foreign minister, making him the third person to hold the post in a month.

Kefi, who has worked at Tunisian embassies in countries including Russia and Indonesia, was sworn into office by interim President Fouad Mebazaa, the TAP news agency said.

Two other foreign ministers have left their posts since Ben Ali's departure. Kamel Morjane, who was foreign minister under Ben Ali, kept his job briefly after the strongman's ouster. But protesters continued to press the government to get rid of symbols of the Ben Ali regime, and Morjane stepped down late last month, citing "Tunisia's best interests."

He was replaced by unpopular Ahmed Ounaies, who angered many with a long, gushing speech in Paris in praise of French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. She has come under fire for her handling of the situation in the former French colony and for a vacation she took in Tunisia shortly before Ben Ali fled.

The "people's revolution" in Tunisia has inspired protesters in countries throughout the region, including in Egypt, where mass demonstrations forced President Hosni Mubarak from power. Governments have violently tried to suppress similar protests in other countries including Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.

Tunisia's unrest has largely subsided since Ben Ali's departure. But sporadic violence has continued.

On Friday, the body of a Polish Roman Catholic priest, Marek Marius Rybinski, was found with his throat slit in a Tunis suburb. It was the first deadly attack on a member of a religious minority since Ben Ali's ouster. The TAP news agency said Monday that police have arrested a suspect, a Tunisian woodworker who worked at the same school as the priest.