Tunisian PM names independents to key gov't posts

Tunisia's prime minister has appointed independents to three key posts in the country's new interim Cabinet, removing ministers from the former ruling party in a major concession to demonstrators.

But Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, himself a holdover from the former regime of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is staying on in the new Cabinet, despite calls for his ouster.

It was not immediately clear if naming independent ministers to the interior, foreign and defense Cabinet posts on Thursday would succeed in quelling Tunisia's daily street protests demanding the removal of all ministers with ties to the country's former regime.

Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, was driven from power by the anti-government protesters on Jan. 14 and fled to Saudi Arabia.

The new interim Cabinet, Tunisia's second in 10 days, is a caretaker government intended to prepare for elections in six to seven months. Ghannouchi said the elections will be organized by an independent national commission and overseen by international observers to ensure the vote is "honest and transparent." He did not offer a date for the ballot.

The new Cabinet includes 12 new ministers and nine holdovers from the prior interim government that had been named on Jan. 17, in addition to Ghannouchi.

The newcomers include Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi, Defense Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi, and Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Ounaies. Only three ministers in the government named Thursday have roots in Ben Ali's RCD party, compared to 10 in the previous interim Cabinet.

Speaking on national TV, Ghannouchi said the new Cabinet should begin work on political reforms sought by some opposition parties, including new laws on elections, anti-terrorist legislation and press freedom.

Ghannouchi also said the latest Cabinet would "undertake economic and social reforms to spur a rebound in all sectors and improve living conditions for Tunisians in all parts of the country."

In a clear appeal for an end to the daily street protests, Ghannouchi urged Tunisians to "demonstrate civilized behavior" so that "the revolution can be a success."

Earlier Thursday the powerful UGTT union announced it would refuse to join the interim Cabinet, saying it preferred to remain as an opposition force outside the government.

The government says 78 civilians were killed, many shot by police, in nearly a month of protests over unemployment, corruption and repression that eventually forced Ben Ali to flee.