Clashes as tens of thousands mourn Tunisian

Tunisian police fired tear gas amid clashes in the capital Friday as tens of thousands of mourners joined the funeral of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, whose murder has plunged the country into fresh post-revolution turmoil.

Dozens of demonstrators skirmished with police on the margins of the funeral procession in Tunis, a city paralysed by a general strike called in protest at Wednesday's cold-blooded killing of the leftist leader.

"With our blood and our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr," shouted the mourners, who included prominent politicians. They also chanted slogans denouncing the ruling Ennahda party as "assassins".

Among the demonstrators, Belaid's widow Besma held two fingers in the air in the victory sign, as a chant of "The people want a new revolution" rang through the crowd.

It was all too much for his eight-year-old daughter, who fainted amidst the chaotic and emotional scenes as the funeral procession set off on its three and a half kilometre (two-mile) journey to the cemetary.

"My son is a man who lived with courage and dignity. I was never afraid, he left as martyr for our country," said Salah Belaid, his father.

"We lost a great hero," Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who is now a centre-right opposition leader, told AFP.

The opposition has accused the Islamist party which dominates the governing coalition of eliminating the outspoken government critic, after months of simmering tensions between liberals and Islamists over the future direction of the once proudly secular Muslim nation.

Groups of protesters tried to attack cars outside the El-Jellaz cemetery in southern Tunis, but police fired tear gas to disperse them.

In the city centre, police clashed with youths who had gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

Armoured vehicles and troops had taken up positions along the landmark boulevard, epicentre of the 2011 revolution that toppled autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked a wave of Arab world uprisings.

Belaid, 48, was shot dead by a lone, hooded gunman, early Wednesday as he left his home to go to work.

As a general strike called by the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) took hold, troops were deployed in the towns of Zarzis, another social flashpoint in the south near Libya and Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the 2011 revolution.

Police fired tear gas to disperse a demonstration in the central mining town of Gafsa, the scene of sporadic rioting in the aftermath of Belaid's killing, where protesters set alight a police station on Friday.

The strike is believed to be the biggest since January 14, 2011 -- the day Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remains in exile.

"For us it is a landmark event because it is a real turning in the history of Tunisia," said Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of Manouba University, explaining why academics had joined the strike.

Both the 500,000-strong UGTT and the government appealed for calm after two days of clashes in Tunis and other cities.

The interior ministry called on Tunisians "under the exceptional circumstances facing the country, to respect the right to work, the right to strike and to avoid anything that could undermine public security."

The United States has urged Tunisian leaders to come together to resolve the mounting tensions and called for calm.

"There's no place for violence in Tunisia's democracy," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "It won't resolve the issues that Tunisians face."

The violence has left a police officer dead and scores injured. Another police officer was in a coma after the violence in Gafsa, officials said.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali responded to the outrage by saying he would form a new government of technocrats, but a faction of his Ennahda party has rejected the move, fuelling uncertainty in a country where political infighting has delayed agreement on a new constitution.

Any reshuffle would have to be confirmed by the national assembly.

Four opposition groups including Belaid's Popular Front bloc said they were pulling out of the National Constituent Assembly, elected in October 2011 but which has failed to draft a new constitution.

The Tunisian League for Defence of Human Rights said threats and intimidation were continuing under the Ennahda-dominated government, and called for the protection of politicians.

Pro-Ennahda militias have been accused of organising attacks on secular opposition groups already at loggerheads with Ennahda over the constitution.

Ennahda has vehemently denied charges by Belaid's family that it was behind his killing.