TUNIS – Protests and a general strike swept Tunisia on Friday after gunmen killed an opposition leader, allegedly using “the same gun” that was used to kill a colleague half a year ago, and authorities pointed to al-Qaida links.
Mohamed Brahmi was gunned down Thursday with the same weapon used to kill another opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, six months earlier, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said.
Brahmi’s wife, Mbarka, said her husband would be buried Saturday at El Jallez cemetery in southern Tunis, next to Belaid.
Ben Jeddou said the main suspect in Brahmi’s killing was a member of the radical Sunni Muslim Salafist movement Ansar al-Sharia, which officials have previously linked to al-Qaida.
“The first elements of the investigation show the implication of Boubaker Hakim, a Salafist extremist,” he said.
The 30-year-old chief suspect, born in Paris, is already wanted for kidnapping and arms trafficking, the minister said.
Public security chief Mustapha Taieb Ben Amor named 14 radical Islamist suspects — including four behind bars — who have been implicated in the two political killings.
“The suspects are radical extremists, and some of them belong to Ansar al-Sharia,” the main Salafist group in Tunisia, Ben Jeddou said.
Brahmi, 58, was gunned down outside his home in the Tunis suburb of Ariana by two gunmen on motorcycles.
He was an MP with the leftist and nationalist Popular Movement but quit the party he founded on July 7, saying it had been infiltrated by Islamists.
The General Union of Tunisian Labor (UGTT) called Friday’s general strike to protest the “terrorism, violence and murders.”
National airline Tunisair and some European carriers canceled flights to Tunis on Friday.
Thousands of pro-government demonstrators also staged a solidarity rally in the capital amid allegations of government connivance in the murder. The state prosecutor’s office said an autopsy found that Brahmi had been cut down by a hail of 14 bullets.
Balkis Brahmi, 19, one of his five children, said he was killed by two men in black on a motorbike. “At around midday, we heard gunfire and my father crying with pain. We rushed out — my brother, mother and I — to find his body riddled with bullets at the wheel of his car parked in front of the house,” she said.
As news of the slaying spread, angry protesters took to the streets in both Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, Brahmi’s hometown.
His wife said Saturday’s funeral procession would travel 10 km from their home to the cemetery. The Interior Ministry said it will deploy reinforcements to provide security, while the UGTT called for a national funeral.
Tens of thousands of people attended Belaid’s funeral in February, when part of the procession turned into a protest against Ennahda, the ruling Islamist party.
The moderate party was again in the firing line over Brahmi’s death.
“Violence is being turned into a system. By whom? By people determined to seize power or to stay in power,” the Le Quotidien newspaper said, pointing the finger of blame at the government led by Ennahda.
Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the main opposition party Nidaa Tounes, said Ennahda was to blame because it had failed to identify Belaid’s killers.
“There has not been any serious judicial action,” he said.
Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi said in a statement Thursday that “those behind this crime want to lead the country towards civil war and to disrupt the democratic transition.”
He called the killing a “catastrophe” for Tunisia, and the presidency said Friday was being marked as a day of national mourning.
Political tension has been rising in Tunisia, with the launch of its own version of the Tamarod (rebellion) movement in Egypt that led to the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3.
Brahmi’s murder stoked the tension. One party, Al Moubadara, decided to withdraw its five MPs from parliament, a party official said.
The U.N. human rights office urged official restraint in the face of public anger. “We urge the authorities in Tunisia to take great care not to inflame the situation further with excessive use of force and to respect the right of people to protest peacefully,” spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.