Tunisian opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi was shot dead outside his home in Tunis today in the second such assassination this year, setting off violent protests against the Islamist-led government in the capital and elsewhere.
"This criminal gang has killed the free voice of Brahmi," his widow Mbarka Brahmi told Reuters, without specifying who she thought was behind the shooting.
Brahmi's sister later accused the main Islamist Ennahda party of being behind the killing. "Ennahda killed my brother," Souhiba Brahmi said. Ennahda has condemned the murder.
The politician's wife said Brahmi had left the house after receiving a telephone call. She heard shots and found his body lying on the ground outside as two men fled on a motorcycle.
Brahmi belonged to the secular, Arab nationalist Popular Front party, whose then-leader, Chokri Belaid, was killed in a similar way on February 6. His death ignited the worst violence in Tunisia since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fell in 2011.
Divisions between Islamists and their secular opponents have deepened since the popular uprising against Ben Ali, which unleashed unrest across the Arab world, unseating rulers in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and leading to a civil war in Syria.
Brahmi, 58, was a critic of the Ennahda-led ruling coalition and a member of the Constituent Assembly that has drafted a new constitution for the North African nation of 11 million.
The chairman of the Constituent Assembly said Friday would be a day of mourning for Brahmi.
Thousands of people protested outside the Interior Ministry in the capital, Tunis, and a hospital in the Ariana district where Brahmi's body had been taken after the killing.
"Down with the rule of the Islamists," they chanted, and demanded that the government resign.
Big crowds accompanied Brahmi's body when it was taken later for autopsy at another Tunis hospital. Despite the presence of hundreds of soldiers and police, protesters smashed cars and broke the windows of the hospital in Ariana, witnesses said.
ENNAHDA OFFICES SET ALIGHT
Similar demonstrations erupted in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian revolution, where protesters set fire to two local Ennahda party offices, witnesses said.
"Thousands have taken to the streets. People have blocked roads and set tyres alight," said Mehdi Horchani, a resident of Sidi Bouzid. "People are very angry."
Tunisia's biggest labour organisation, UGTT, called for a general strike on Friday in protest at Brahmi's killing. Its secretary-general, Hussein Abbasi, earlier predicted that the assassination would lead the country into a "bloodbath".
The government met to discuss the crisis and Prime Minister Ali Larayedh was expected to address the nation later.
Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party, said Brahmi's assassination 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's political transition since the revolt that toppled Ben Ali has been relatively peaceful, with the moderate Islamist Ennahda party sharing power with smaller secular parties.
But the government has struggled to revive a stuttering economy and has come under fire from secularists who accuse it of failing to curb the activities of radical Salafi Islamists.
The government blamed Belaid's assassination, also carried out by assailants on a motorcycle, on an unidentified group of Salafi militants, saying six of them are still on the run.
The Egyptian army's overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3 following mass protests against him has further energised the anti-Islamist opposition in Tunisia.
A protest movement known as Tamarod, modelled on the Egyptian group of the same name that orchestrated the anti-Mursi demonstrations, has called for rallies to topple the government.
But Ghannouchi dismissed the plan. "Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario," he told Reuters. "We will hold on."
After the killing of Brahmi, who had applauded the Egyptian army's removal of Mursi, the leader of his Popular Front called for non-violent action to oust the Tunisian government.
"We call on the Tunisian people to pursue peaceful civil disobedience in all the cities of the republic to bring down the government and the Constituent Assembly and form a national salvation government," Hamma Hammami said.
Ennahda's secretary-general, Hamadi Jebali, who was forced to resign as prime minister following Belaid's death in February, condemned Brahmi's killing as "the second installment in a conspiracy against the revolution and the country".
The latest assassination occurred on Tunisia's Republic Day as the country prepares to vote in the next few weeks on a new constitution before a presidential election later in the year.