Synagogue, Schools Attacked in Tunisia, Fear Spreads

Gabes, Tunisia - A synagogue was set on fire in Tunisia overnight and gangs rampaged through schools in the capital on Tuesday, prompting the army to fan out to calm fears of chaos after the revolt that toppled Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali.

Major street protests have dried up in Tunisia in recent days, after a reshuffle purged the interim government of most Ben Ali loyalists and appeased public opinion.

But sporadic acts of intimidation and sabotage have broken out after weeks of protests forced Ben Ali to flee the country on Jan. 14, ending 23 years of strict police rule.

Peres Trabelsi, the spokesman for Tunisia's Jewish community, said he did not know who was behind the attack on the synagogue in the southern city of Gabes.

"I condemn this action and I believe those who did it want to create divisions between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia who have lived for decades in peace," Trabelsi said.

Mainly Muslim Tunisia has one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa but attacks are rare. The last attack came in 2002, when al Qaeda killed 21 people in a synagogue attack on the island of Djerba.

In further sign of deteriorating security, witnesses said gangs marauded through several schools in Tunis, terrifying students. The army fired in the air in Carthage, to disperse gangs that stormed two schools, they said.

On Monday, youths armed with knives and sticks marauded through the streets of Gassrine, burning government buildings and intimidating residents, the state news agency said.

Gangs of youths marauded through central Tunis on Saturday, dispersing a protest by Tunisian women.

They were chased away on the central Bourguiba Avenue by vigilante shopkeepers, also armed with knives and sticks, who said they were protecting their businesses from attack.

Some shopkeepers suggested the gangs were either loyalists of the former ruling RCD party or paid by Ben Ali to create havoc in the streets. Like the youths marauding through Gassrine, they did not appear to be protesters with political demands but were aiming to intimidate residents.

"We're here to try to reassure people that we will protect them," said one soldier, posted in an armoured personnel carrier outside a school in Tunis.

Ben Ali, who was interior minister before he took power in 1987, had a vast network of police, security forces and spies.

That network has not been dismantled since the revolution.

Diplomats say that while Ben Ali's presidential guard had mostly been scattered or killed, a small number of armed loyalists may remain inside the country.

UN Calls for Security Overhaul

A U.N. human rights official said on Tuesday Tunisia's security forces must be overhauled to stop them from working against the people as they did during the country's uprising in which 147 people were killed.

"The main sector that needs reform is the security forces that must begin to work for the people not against them," said Bacre Waly Ndiaye, who is leading an eight-member team sent to Tunisia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"The security system is at the heart of the reform process. There should be a limit placed on the police state."

Ndiaye told a news conference that 510 people had been wounded during the weeks of protests that began on Dec 17 and inspired a massive popular uprising in Egypt.

Tunisia's interim government has promised to investigate any deaths and injuries that took place during the uprising and has begun to compensate the families affected.

The government has also promised to take back the assets held by Ben Ali and his family in Tunisia and abroad.

French authorities seized a small aircraft belonging Ben Ali's family at an airport near Paris, the prosecutors office said on Tuesday.

The move comes a day after the European Union agreed to freeze assets belonging to Ben Ali and his wife.

Ben Ali and his family built up interests in many Tunisian companies and industries during his two decades in power, including hotels, banks, construction companies, newspapers and pharmaceutical firms.