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In shell-shocked Tunisia, armed groups now patrol the streets

After popular protests forced the ouster of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali on Friday, sections of Tunisia's capital, Tunis, are now being patrolled by small groups of young men.

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People stand outside a looted supermarket in Tunis, Saturday. Armed young men have begun patrolling the streets of Tunis to prevent further looting and arson.

Hedi Ben Salem/AP

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Young men armed with makeshift clubs patrolled their neighborhood streets in central Tunis Sunday, preparing to defend against looters or violent attackers after a day and a half of chaos that followed the departure of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali Friday.

Carrying metal rods and wooden sticks, the youths barricaded roads and set up rogue checkpoints, stopping cars and questioning the occupants.

Mr. Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia Friday, swept from power by a month of popular protests against rising unemployment, government corruption, and lack of political freedom.

Residents of Tunis were taking neighborhood safety into their own hands, just as they did with their nation’s future over the past month.

“We forced the president to leave, but now we’re here to protect our homes, our shops, and our families from Ben Ali’s thugs,” said one of the young men, holding an iron bar in one hand and a Tunisian flag in the other. “He left, but his supporters are still here.”

President's loyalists organizing violence?

Many citizens accuse those loyal to the president of trying to sow chaos, and say they were responsible for some of the widespread violence and looting that followed the president’s departure.

Saturday, Tunis’s train station was burned down, inmates escaped from some prisons and some were killed when another was lit on fire, and unidentified gunmen shot at police at the Interior Ministry.

Calm had begun to return to Tunis Sunday, though it was broken by two gunbattles that erupted in central Tunis in late afternoon.

In one, the military was reported to be fighting members of Ben Ali’s security forces still loyal to him. The other shooting was outside the headquarters of a main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party.

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