Tunisia has asked Interpol to help arrest ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family so they can be tried for theft and currency offences, the justice minister said on Wednesday.

The French-based international police organisation has been asked to bring to justice Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members who have fled the country, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi told a news conference.

Ben Ali went to Saudi Arabia this month after weeks of violent protests against poverty, repression and corruption. He amassed vast riches during his 23 years in power, with his family controlling many of Tunisia's biggest companies.

We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman, for trial in Tunisia, the justice minister said.

Chebbi also said six members of the presidential guard would be put on trial for inciting violence after Ben Ali's departure.

Inspired by Tunisia's example in toppling Ben Ali, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets of Cairo and other cities to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, clashing with police who fired teargas and used water cannon.

In Tunis, protesters managed to get into the building where the justice minister was speaking and crowded around him after the news conference to petition him about relatives who are still in prison.

Chebbi said that, in the disorder that followed the fall of Ben Ali, about 11,000 prisoners had escaped from Tunisian jails, about one third of the total jail population.


On January 15, the day after Ben Ali left, dozens of inmates were reported to have been killed in a mass breakout from a prison in the town of Mahdia. The same day, 42 inmates were killed in a prison riot in Monastir in what was described by a hospital official as complete chaos.

Chebbi said 2,460 prisoners had been released since Ben Ali fell. It was not clear how many of them had been in jail for political crimes, but the government said earlier it was releasing all political prisoners.

In Tunis, demonstrators clashed with police on Wednesday, as days of peaceful protests demanding a purge of former regime loyalists in an interim government descended into violence.

Clashes broke out near government offices in the old city, or casbah, where riot police fired teargas at hundreds of demonstrators, mainly teenagers and young men, who threw stones.

Wednesday's protesters appeared to be Tunisians from the rural hinterland who have been camping out at the government compound.

They shouted at the security forces that they were the police of Leila, a reference to Ben Ali's unpopular wife, who was seen as having excessive influence and lavish tastes.

Ministers said the interim government, which has struggled to assert itself in the face of protesters' demands to sack the remaining allies of Ben Ali, would be reshuffled later on Wednesday.

The government remains dominated by former members of the ruling RCD party and the new cabinet lineup will mainly fill posts vacated by five resignations over the past week, Education Minister Tayeb Baccouche told Reuters.

Another minister said some provincial governors would also be replaced.

The Tunisian General Labour Union announced a general strike on Wednesday in Sfax, Tunisia's second city and economic centre, where thousands of protesters demanded that the government resign.

The toppling of Ben Ali after 23 years in power, in protests led mainly by young people protesting against poverty, corruption and political repression, has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries face similar problems.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, visiting Tunis, encouraged the interim government to do more to satisfy the demands of the people, and said Washington was ready to assist Tunisia in preparing for its first free elections.