Tunis: Tunisian opposition politician Mohammad Brahmi was killed with the same gun that was used to assassinate his party leader six months ago, suggesting the involvement of the same hardline Islamist group, the interior minister said on Friday.
The killing of Brahmi on Thursday followed the shooting of Shukri Belaid on February 6 and prompted violent protests against Tunisia’s Islamist-led government and a strike call by the main trade union body.
Thousands of protesters massed again in the capital on Friday, while shops and banks closed their doors and all flights in and out of the country were cancelled.
Interior minister Lutfi Bin Jeddou told a news conference in Tunis: “The same 9mm automatic weapon that killed Belaid also killed Brahmi.” He named the main suspect as hardline Salafist Boubacar Hakim, already being sought on suspicion of smuggling weapons from Libya.
Authorities said earlier that Brahmi had been shot 14 times.
Protesters assembled in central Tunis, preparing to march down the capital’s main boulevard as riot police deployed.
The demonstrators chanted: “Down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” in reference to the ruling Al Nahda party, which draws inspiration from the Brotherhood, a pan-Arab Islamist movement.
The protest followed calls by the secular opposition for street rallies to topple the government. Islamists called for a demonstration after Friday prayers.
Brahmi belonged to the secular, Arab nationalist Popular Front party, formerly led by Belaid, whose killing set off the worst violence in Tunisia since President Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali was toppled in 2011 in the first of the Arab Spring revolutions.
Brahmi, 58, was a critic of the Al Nahda-led ruling coalition and a member of the Constituent Assembly that has drafted a new constitution for the North African nation of 11 million.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned what she called the “cowardly assassination” of Brahmi and demanded that his and Belaid’s killers be swiftly brought to justice.
Shops and banks were shuttered in anticipation of violence on Friday. All flights were cancelled because of a strike, the civil aviation office said.
The Tunis stock exchange fell by 1.9 per cent on Friday morning.
Divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents have deepened since the popular uprising against Bin Ali, which unleashed unrest across the Arab world, unseating rulers in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and leading to civil war in Syria.
Brahmi’s family said his funeral would take place on Saturday and he would be buried near the tomb of Belaid.
Tunisian President Monsef Marzouki asked the army to organise a state funeral for Brahmi.
The government announced a day of national mourning on Friday, and radio stations broadcast patriotic songs.
Secularist called for the dissolution of the government and the formation of a national salvation administration, which was rejected by Prime Minister Ali Al Aarayedh.
In Tunis late on Thursday, riot police fired tear gas in front of the interior ministry to disperse protesters, a Reuters witness said.
Similar demonstrations erupted in the cities of Sfax and Kef and in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, where protesters set fire to two Al Nahda party offices.
Tunisia’s political transition since the revolt that toppled Bin Ali has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Al Nahda party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But the government has struggled to revive the economy and has come under fire from secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of Salafi Islamists.
The Egyptian army’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi on July 3 following mass protests against him has further energised the anti-Islamist opposition in Tunisia.
Rashed Ghannoushi, the Al Nahda party leader, said the attack on Brahmi was aimed at “halting Tunisia’s democratic process and killing the only successful model in the region, especially after the violence in Egypt, Syria and Libya”.
“Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario,” he told Reuters. “We will hold on.” The assassination occurred as the country prepares to vote in the next few weeks on the new constitution before a presidential election later in the year.
The turmoil dealt another blow to efforts to revive Tunisia’s vital tourism industry. Cultural events, including the Carthage Festival, were suspended following Brahmi’s killing.