TUNIS - Talks on ending months of political deadlock in Tunisia have been postponed to Friday, as the country's Islamist prime minister said his government was committed in "principle" to resigning to pave a way out of the crisis.
A much anticipated speech by Prime Minister Ali Larayedh Wednesday came as clashes between security forces and gunmen rocked the central Sidi Bouzid region, leaving at least six policemen dead, while opposition protesters massed in central Tunis demanding the government's immediate departure.
"We repeat today our commitment to the principle of relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the roadmap," Larayedh said after an emergency cabinet meeting.
"We will not submit to anyone except the interests of the country," he added, in a heavily delayed statement that held up the scheduled launch on Wednesday afternoon of a long-awaited national dialogue.
But now those talks have been delayed to Friday as the opposition found Larayedh's comments "ambiguous".
"We are going to hold more consultations with the prime minister in order to get more clarifications on his speech today (Wednesday)," said Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the powerful UGTT trade union.
"We've decided that the national dialogue will begin on Friday at 10:00 am," he added.
The opposition had been waiting for a "clear commitment" by Larayedh to resign within three weeks, as stipulated in the roadmap drawn up by mediators and agreed to by his Islamist party Ennahda, to allow the national dialogue to begin.
According to the roadmap, the talks must lead within three weeks to the formation of a new caretaker cabinet of technocrats.
Negotiators will also have one month to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and a timetable for fresh elections. These are key milestones in a transition that has effectively been blocked by wrangling between the Islamists, their coalition allies and the opposition.
Mediators hope the dialogue between Tunisia's bitterly divided political factions will mark a crucial step in the country's democratic transition and end the crisis triggered by the July murder of opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi, an attack blamed on radical Islamists.