Tunisia to hold elections by Dec. 17, says PM

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s prime minister says the government will not step down despite opposition demands. He also promises to finish the constitution by October and hold elections on Dec. 17.

Ali Larayedh gave a defiant press conference Monday that made clear the Islamist-led government would not give in to the mounting calls to dissolve the elected assembly and form a national unity government following a political assassination.

Thursday’s slaying of leftist politician Mohammed Brahmi plunged the country into a political crisis, with the opposition calling it a sign of the government’s failure.

As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s democratic transition is being closely followed.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Thousands of people angered by the assassination of an opposition politician demonstrated in front of Tunisia’s national assembly early Monday to demand that the government resign and dissolve the legislature.

Dozens of legislators, mostly from the opposition, have withdrawn from the assembly in protest, and Minister of Education Salem Labiadh submitted his resignation Monday.

Tunisia’s democratic transition, which is being closely watched throughout the region, has been threatened by the unrest.

The opposition, backed by the country’s largest trade union and civil society groups, says Thursday’s assassination of left-wing legislator Mohammed Brahmi demonstrates the government’s failure to protect its citizens and that the opposition should form a new “national salvation” Cabinet to replace the government.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda Islamist Party that runs the government, told The Associated Press that his movement is “open to all propositions,” but he rejected the dissolution of the assembly, saying it “represents legitimacy of the ballot box since it was elected democratically.”

Since an election in 2011, the Ennahda Islamist Party has led a coalition government with two secular parties that has been guiding this North African nation’s rocky transition to democracy. The country’s new constitution has nearly been completed, and elections are expected by year’s end.

On Thursday, Brahmi was shot 14 times outside his home in front of his family. The assassin, identified by the government as an Islamic extremist, sped off on a moped. The killing — which follows that of another left-wing opposition legislator, Chokri Belaid, in February — has plunged the country into a crisis.

After Brahmi’s funeral on Saturday, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the assembly. The crowd swelled to 25,000 on Sunday night, according to the Interior Ministry, and was divided between pro- and anti-government groups.

Police attempted to keep the rival demonstrations separate and finally cleared the area early Monday with widespread use of tear gas.

Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui said the security forces committed some abuses, but he defended their efforts to avoid what he called a “blood bath” between the rival demonstrations.

There also have been anti-government protests in several cities in the interior of Tunisia since Thursday’s assassination.

Dozens of opposition members in Tunisia’s 217-seat assembly, as well as a few from the ruling coalition, have announced their withdrawal from the body in effort to paralyze it. For the legislature to function, two-thirds of its members must be present, and opposition politicians say around 70 have now withdrawn, just three seats short of the number needed to halt the legislature from doing business.

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