KAIROUAN, Tunisia — Massive numbers of Tunisian police and army surrounded Tunisia's religious center of Kairouan to prevent a conference by a radical Islamist movement as violence in response to their move broke out around the country.
In Kairouan, where tens of thousands of members of the ultraconservative group Ansar al-Sharia had been expected to attend the planned rally on Sunday, the group's supporters threw stones at police, who fired teargas in response.
Police also prevented the group, which openly supports al-Qaida, from holding a smaller religious meeting in the Ettadamen district of the capital Tunis. Clashes broke out with Islamists who chanted: "The rule of the tyrant should fall."
Police fired teargas and shots into the air to disperse some 500 stone-throwing protesters, some of whom set fire to cars, lowered the Tunisian flag and replaced it with a black al-Qaida banner. Buses and the subway stopped working and shops in the neighborhood were closed, while military aircraft patrolled overhead.
Security check points on the roads and patrols inside Kairouan by some 11,000 police and soldiers had prevented Ansar al-Shariah from holding its annual conference after authorities declared it a threat "to security and public order."
The leader of Ansar al-Shariah, Seifallah Ben Hassine is wanted for his involvement in a mob attack on the U.S. embassy in September and his followers have been accused of attacking art galleries, police stations and cinemas.
The robust response to the conference by security forces is unprecedented since the 2011 overthrow of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who presided over a strong police state.
The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, has long been accused by the opposition of being lax with attacks by ultraconservative Muslims, called salafis, on what they deem to be impious in the country.
Ansar al-Shariah's combative rhetoric, however, appears to have united the country against it. In a national dialog conference involving unions, civil society and political parties Thursday, Ansar al-Shariah was widely condemned.
The spokesman of Ansar al-Shariah, Seifeddine Rais, was detained by authorities Sunday morning and an attempt by members to hold a rally in a lower income Tunisian suburb was also dispersed by tear gas.
Rais on Thursday said that the authorities would bear responsibility for any blood spilled if they tried to ban the conference.
Security has been high around Kairouan since Saturday, with police checking IDs and searching the cars of anyone entering the city.
Residents appeared to welcome the security and handed out roses to patrolling police, offering their encouragement.
Since the overthrow of Ben Ali in an uprising that heralded the region-wide Arab Spring, Tunisia's salafis have become increasingly aggressive about preaching their conservative version of Islam.
Last year's Ansar al-Shariah conference in Kairouan drew some 4,000 attendees and featured sword waving horse riders and martial arts displays, along with a great deal of fiery rhetoric.
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