Ben Ali's riches under scrutiny; EU asset freeze mooted (UPDATE)

Ben Ali's riches under scrutiny; EU asset freeze mooted (UPDATE)

Details added (first version was published at 17:00)

Ousted Tunisian president Zine el- Abidine ben Ali found himself further marginalized Wednesday as the country's new unity government began investigating his family's riches and the Swiss government announced it was blocking his assets, dpa reported.

A day after being sworn in, Tunisia's transitional government began probing Ben Ali's assets, as well as those of his family and his wife Leila's powerful Trabelsi clan, Tunisia's official TAP agency reported.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said her government was blocking the assets of Ben Ali and incumbent Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo, as well as those of their inner circle.

One Swiss radio report said Ben Ali's Swiss assets include a jet plane and a building in the most expensive part of Geneva.

The autocratic Ben Ali, whose extended family is accused of creaming off much of Tunisia's wealth, last week fled to Saudi Arabia.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was also considering a freeze on Ben Ali's assets, part of a comprehensive package of measures to support the transition to democracy in Tunisia.

France, the former colonial power in Tunisia, has already ordered its banks to freeze any accounts belonging to Ben Ali and his family.

Meanwhile, capital Tunis was returning to normal, with cafes reopening and most people returning to work after days of demonstrations and looting.

As one of its first actions, Tunisia's transitional government on Wednesday released 1,800 prisoners across the country, the Justice Department said.

On Monday, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said the government was committed to freeing all political prisoners.

However, those freed Wednesday were prisoners who only had sentences that did not exceed six months. The government plans to issue new legislation soon to free all political prisoners.

While about 2,000 people continued to protest the inclusion in the new government of several ministers who served under Ben Ali, the demonstration in central Tunis was peaceful.

Several towns in the centre of the country, where the unrest began in December, also saw renewed protests Wednesday.

Ben Ali's foreign, interior and defence ministers were among those reappointed to their posts Monday, in a move that drew fierce criticism from the opposition and civil society.

Since Ben Ali fled, the target of popular discontent in Tunisia has shifted to the RCD - the party that has ruled the country since independence from France in 1956.

On Tuesday, three ministers from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) quit the government in protest at RCD members being given the top jobs.

Health minister-designate Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the opposition FDLT party is also boycotting the new government.

Ben Ali, leader of 23 years, left after a month of protests that began over unemployment and gradually swelled into a national uprising.

The uprising cost the lives of 78 people, mostly unarmed demonstrators.

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