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Jebali vows to press on with plans for caretaker government in Tunisia

By Dan Rivers and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
February 9, 2013 -- Updated 0110 GMT (0910 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "The government, I feel, is backed by a lot of people," Jebali says
  • His party has not yet decided whether to accept Jebali's edict
  • Protesters clash with security forces along the route of the funeral procession
  • Belaid's widow and others say the government allowed a climate of political violence

Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- As outrage mounted over the assassination this week of an opposition leader, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali vowed Friday to press on with his plan to form a caretaker government composed of technocrats.

Speaking from his residence in the Tunis suburb of Carthage, Jebali denied his moderate religious Ennahda Party had anything to do with the shooting death Wednesday morning of Chokri Belaid.

Jebali said he hoped to get approval for his plan from the Ennahda Party and other parties "because this is a guarantee or, let's say, more guarantees for the government. The government, I feel, is backed by a lot of people, mainly among ordinary people. I hope that political parties will translate the view of our people."

Late Wednesday, Jebali sacked his Cabinet and called for new elections, leaving himself at the head of a caretaker government.

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However, a top Ennahda party official said Thursday that the call to dissolve the Cabinet and offer a new technocratic government was "not binding."

The party's leaders were trying to decide whether to accept their prime minister's decision.

As Jebali spoke Friday, thousands of Tunisians were demonstrating in the streets of the capital in outrage over the assassination, calling on Jebali to resign.

Jebali denied that his party had anything to do with the killing -- the first assassination since Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" -- and urged his fellow countrymen to act with restraint.

"I already told them -- don't play role of the law, do not respond with violence," he said. "Otherwise, we are trapped, because the goal of those who shot Belaid is to make us react violently."

Jebali said the weapons that killed Belaid were also taking aim at the Jasmine Revolution, which led to the ouster of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali two years ago and spawned the Arab Spring.

"So, be careful of quick accusations, it will worsen the situation," he warned.

Jebali defended the current leadership's role in supporting the changes effected by the revolution in this North African country of nearly 11 million people.

"Tunisian people made the Jasmine Revolution for two goals: revolution against dictatorship and revolution against corruption, and they also wanted social justice," he said.

Those goals have not been betrayed, he said. "The biggest proof is what is happening in the streets -- protests, free press. I don't think that another press in the world enjoys more than here in Tunisia. Beside, we are not corrupt people, but if people made a revolution against us, that's their right, and we will bow to the will of our people."

READ: Tunisia gripped by political uncertainty after killing

Earlier Friday, tens of thousands of mourners followed Belaid's funeral cortege as his flag-draped casket was taken through the streets of the capital to a cemetery.

A phalanx of uniformed soldiers escorted the coffin bearers into the cemetery.

Protesters had clashed intermittently along the route with security forces, who fired tear gas into the crowds. A private TV channel broadcast the procession showed a car burning.

Many of those mourning Belaid expressed anger at the government, which they accuse of allowing a climate of political violence to spread unchecked.

On the capital's central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a flashpoint for protests, dozens of demonstrators fled as riot police fired tear gas. Sporadic clashes also flared on side streets.

The military has been deployed alongside police to try to rein in the protests.

READ: Vocal critic of Islamist-led government gunned down in Tunisia

Belaid, a prominent secular politician, was shot dead as he left his home Wednesday morning for work. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Weeping Thursday beside his casket, his widow, Besma Belaid, was among those pointing the finger at the climate fostered by the governing Ennahda party, which is led by moderate Islamists.

"It's an open invitation to violence," she said. "I can only accuse this party."

Chokri Belaid had warned early this week that the government had given a green light to political violence.

A general strike called by trades unions for Friday, the first such action in Tunisia in three decades, closed many shops, cafes and other businesses. The national airline, Tunisair, warned of possible flight disruptions.

Protests have also erupted in the central towns of Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution.

Support for Belaid went beyond his party, the secular-leftist Democratic Patriots. He was also the voice of a coalition of secular opposition parties known as the Popular Front and decried violence.

READ: Economic development key to consolidating democracy in Tunisia

But Belaid routinely received death threats for his criticism of Tunisia's moderate Islamist-led government. He talked about the threats on his frequent television appearances but said he didn't fear for his life.

Official investigators have yet to reach a conclusion on who may have been responsible.

Amna Guellali, of the rights group Human Rights Watch, said the government itself bears some responsibility because of its "laxity" in failing to respond to a climate of rising political violence.

"We warned the government that these incidents of violence should be investigated thoroughly and that people who have perpetrated these acts should be punished ... but we haven't heard anything back," she told CNN in Tunis.

She cited calls by preachers in some mosques in July for the killing of certain Tunisian political figures and personalities, including Belaid, she said.

"We didn't see the government reacting to these calls of clear incitement to murder," she said. "A government has to protect its citizens ... especially if there are clear threats against this person."

Dan Rivers reported from Tunis, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported from London. CNN's Brian Walker contributed from Atlanta.

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