Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in the Tunisian capital on Wednesday to demand the dismissal from the new coalition government of ministers associated with ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The national unity cabinet was due to hold its first meeting, with its caretaker prime minister under pressure from opposition leaders and protesters who say there is no place in government for allies of the former leader.

Four opponents of Ben Ali quit the government within a day of being appointed, saying protesters were disappointed at how many of the old guard, including Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, were still in power.

The weeks of protests over poverty and unemployment, which cost about 100 lives and forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia, prompted speculation across the Arab world that other repressive governments might also face unrest.

About 500 people were protesting in Bourguiba Avenue in the centre of Tunis on Wednesday, fewer than in recent days.

This will continue every day until we get rid of the ruling party, said Faydi Borni, a teacher. We got rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship. We want rid of this government that shut us up for 30 years.

Not all Tunisians back the protests. We've been living so long under pressure but maybe we should give the government a chance, said one woman bystander, who did not want to give her name. People will have a chance to vote.

Around the protest, life continued as normal. Trams were passing through the middle of the demonstration. Protesters clapped a woman tram driver who smiled at them as she edged through the crowd.

Tunis residents said the streets were quiet overnight, with no shooting or looting. In a sign that security was improving, state television said that the nightly curfew was shortened by three hours. It will now run from 8 p.m. (7:00 p.m. British time) until 5 a.m.

Moncef Marzouki, the leader of a small opposition party who returned to Tunisia from exile in France this week, visited the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself in an act of protest and started the wave of unrest which toppled Ben Ali.

Marzouki, who plans to run for president, also went to where Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, where about 300 people greeted him and lifted him onto their shoulders.

People in the crowd carried banners saying: Ghannouchi must go! and The people demand that Ben Ali's people leave!

Marzouki called for an independent figure to be appointed in place of the prime minister to form a government.

If the situation continues with a government built on this old dictatorship, the situation will continue on the street and what I want is for Tunisia to return to stability as soon as possible, he told Reuters in an interview.


Underlining international concern over Tunisia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Washington's desire for calm.

At a summit in Egypt, the head of the Arab League warned the region's leaders to heed economic and political problems that caused the upheaval in Tunisia because they were issues that affected all Arab states.

Switzerland said it was freezing the assets of Ben Ali and his entourage, widely accused of enriching themselves massively during his 23 years in power.

Tunisia's state news agency said an investigation would be launched into allegations that Ben Ali, wife Leila, and members of their families had acquired property and stocks abroad. It said there would be an inquiry into the transfer of foreign currency abroad by members of Ben Ali's extended family.

Tunisian state television reported the government had released 1,800 prisoners sentenced to less than six months for minor offences. It was not clear if any of these included people jailed for their political beliefs.

France said it had intercepted a shipment of riot gear, including tear gas canisters and bullet-proof vests, ordered by Ben Ali just before his downfall.

The United Nations said it would send a team of human rights officials to Tunisia next week to look into the violence and advise the new coalition government.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she had received information that more than 100 people had died in the violence. The Tunisian government puts the figure at 78.

Rating agency Moody's Investors Service on Wednesday lowered its credit rating for Tunisia, and Standard and Poor's has threatened to do so if uncertainty continues. The cost of insuring Tunisia's debt against default rose sharply.