Tunis (Reuters) - A Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead on Wednesday, sending thousands of protesters onto the streets of the capital and in Sidi Bouzid, the epicenter of uprisings that swept the Arab world and Tunisia's president from power.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who said the identity of the attacker was not known, condemned the killing of Shokri Belaid outside his Tunis home as a political assassination and a strike against the "Arab Spring" revolution.
Tension has been growing between Islamists and secularists such as Belaid, who was a staunch opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government elected in October 2011.
As news of the killing spread, more than 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Interior Ministry, many calling for the fall of the government elected after their uprising chased out veteran ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
Protesters also took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid, where jobless university graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in despair after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit cart, triggering protests that toppled the president.
"More than 4,000 are protesting now, burning wheels and throwing stones at the police", Mehdi Horchani a resident from Sidi Bouzid, told Reuters. "There is a great anger."
Tunisia was the first Arab country to oust its leader and hold free elections as uprisings spread around the region two years ago, leading to the ousting of the rulers of Egypt, Yemen and Libya and the civil war in Syria.
Since the revolution the government has faced a string of protests over economic hardship and Tunisia's future path, with many complaining hardline Salafis were hijacking the revolution in a country dominated previously by a secular elite.
Declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone has left Tunisians struggling to achieve the better living standards many had hoped for following Ben Ali's departure.
President Moncef Marzouki, who last month warned the tension may lead to "civil war", called for calm and cut short a trip to France as well as cancelling a visit to Egypt scheduled for Thursday after the killing.
"We will continue to fight the enemies of the revolution," he told lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, to applause.
FRANCE WORRIED BY RISING VIOLENCE
Compounding the political unrest, Tunisia says al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state.
"The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution. By killing him they wanted to silence his voice," said Jebali, who heads the government led by the Ennahda party, which won Tunisia's first post-Arab Spring election.
Belaid, who died in hospital, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. A lawyer and human rights activist he had been a constant critic of the government, accusing it of being a puppet of the rulers in Gulf Arab state of Qatar, which Tunisia denies.
"Shokri Belaid was killed today by four bullets to the head and chest ... doctors told us that he has died. This is a sad day for Tunisia," Ziad Lakhader, a leader of the Popular Front, told Reuters.
French President Francois Hollande condemned the shooting, saying he was concerned by the rise of violence in France's former colony.
"This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices," Hollande's office said in a statement.
"France is concerned by the mounting political violence in Tunisia and calls for the ideas cherished by the Tunisian people during their revolution to be respected."
TENSION OVER RULE
Marzouki warned last month that the conflict between Islamists and secularists could lead to civil war and called for a national dialogue that included all political shades.
The secular opposition has accused Ennahda of being too close to hardline Salafi groups, while Salafis who complain Ennahda is failing to defend Islamic values. Ennahda rejects the charges from both sides.
Ennahda party won 42 percent of seats in 2011 elections but formed a government in coalition with two secular parties, the president's Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
Marzouki's party threatened on Sunday to withdraw from the government unless it dropped two Islamist ministers.
The opposition threatened unspecified retribution for the killing, that Ennahda president Rached Gannouchi condemned as "aimed at the democratic process of democratic transition". "The opposition will take historic decisions in response to this cowardly act", Maya Jribi secretary-general of the secularist Republican Party.
(Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle)
(This story was corrected to fix typo in the third paragraph)
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