, TUNIS, Jan 14 – Thousands of protesters demanded the immediate departure of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in marches across the country Friday, emboldened by his pledge to step down in 2014 after weeks of unrest.
"No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues," hundreds shouted in a march down the main boulevard in central Tunis, Avenue Bourguiba, while thousands more protesters took to the streets in other towns shouting "Ben Ali out".
The crowd in the capital, which included lawyers in black robes, sang the national anthem, and also accused the president\’s in-laws in the Trabelsi family of "looting the country", AFP reporters said.
Police briefly tried to stop marchers from reaching the interior ministry but later let them through, with the building surrounded by security forces that were also stationed on the rooftop and filmed the protesters.
"The interior ministry is a ministry of terror," the crowd shouted, paying tribute to the "blood of the martyrs".
The ministry has been criticised for its harsh crackdown on protests that erupted mid-December in the worst unrest faced by the 23 years of Ben Ali\’s iron-fisted rule.
A Paris-based rights group says 66 people have been killed, several times higher than the official toll.
Among the crowd at the ministry was lawyer and human rights activist Radia Nasraoui who demanded information about the whereabouts of her husband, leftist and Ben Ali critic Hamma Hammami who was arrested on Wednesday.
"We want action and not words," she said.
In a bid to quell the unprecedented unrest, Ben Ali promised in a national address late Thursday that he would not seek another term in office and vowed to liberalise the political system.
He also promised to lower the prices of basic commodities such as milk, bread and sugar and vowed to lift restrictions on the Internet.
On Monday he pledged to create 300,000 new jobs over two years with unemployment — officially at 14 percent, although other estimates put it at double that figure — sparking the outpouring of anger.
Despite his concessions, demonstrations also erupted in several towns outside the capital Friday and the main Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT) called a two-hour strike.
About 1,500 people marched in Sidi Bouzid, from where the wave of protests was unleashed mid-December after the suicide of a young graduate, and shouted, "Ben Ali out," an AFP reporter said.
Another roughly 700 marched in the nearby town of Regueb, while residents held a fifth consecutive day of an anti-government sit-in and renamed the central November 7 Square, named after the date Ben Ali took power in 1987, the "Martyrs Square".
Marchers also yelled "Ben Ali Out!" in the central town of Kairouan, with the same slogan used in Gafsa in the southwest, union sources said.
A contrite Ben Ali also said Thursday he had ordered police to stop firing on protesters and admitted that he had mishandled a spreading wave of unrest.
"Enough firing of real bullets," he said. "I refuse to see new victims fall."
The mainstream opposition largely welcomed Ben Ali\’s speech, in which he stopped short of admitting that he himself had been at fault but said he had been "deceived" by some of his lieutenants.
The president had initially denounced the rioting as the result of foreign meddling. As the protests spread earlier this week, he sacked his interior minister.
"The positive fact is that the president decided not to stand again," said Mohammed Nejib Chebbi, long-standing leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, which is legal but not represented in parliament.
In a reflection of a radical political change, Ben Ali\’s foreign minister indicated that a national unity government could be established.
"Given the conduct of people like Mr. Nejib Chebbi, I think it is feasible, even totally normal" to have a power-sharing deal, Kamel Morjane told France\’s Europe 1 radio station. He gave no details of who he thought might take part.
With Algeria also shaken by food protests this month, Mauritania and Senegal ordered Friday urgent measures to keep food prices down.