An international arrest warrant has been issued for Tunisia's former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. ((Reuters))

Tunisia has issued an international arrest warrant for ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, accusing him of taking money out of the North African nation illegally.

Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after being driven from power this month by violent protests, is also being charged with illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad, Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said Wednesday.

Tunisia is seeking the arrest of Ben Ali's wife, Leila. French media have reported that Leila left the country with millions in gold bullion. Arrest warrants were also issued for other family members.

Among them is the president's brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi, who reportedly arrived in Montreal last week. Trabelsi, who has extensive business interests in Tunisia, stands accused of stealing government funds.

U.S. cables on Trabelsis

Read the U.S. diplomatic cables  on WikiLeaks discussing the Trabelsi family and its notorious corruption.

Tunisian groups in Canada are calling on federal authorities to freeze Trabelsi's funds and extradite him to Tunisia.

The RCMP said Wednesday that a "diffusion" or alert issued by Tunisia seeking to locate Ben Ali and six members of his family had been distributed to Interpol member countries, but does not constitute an arrest warrant under Canadian law. The RCMP added that Canadian law enforcement agencies would only become involved once an official request to investigate has been received through Interpol or another formal channel.

Private matter  

The RCMP referred inquiries to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which declined to comment Wednesday on whether the Tunisian government has made a request to Canada to freeze assets, adding it is a private matter between countries. But a spokesperson for the department said Canada would need to see proof that assets were acquired illegally for them to be frozen.

"Mr. Ben Ali and members of his regime are not welcome in Canada," a department spokesperson said Tuesday,

Haroun Bouazzi, a member of the expatriate Tunisian community in Montreal, told CBC News Wednesday that a lot of Tunisians in Canada are "very angry" about the situation.

He said when they heard Trabelsi and family were hiding out in a hotel somewhere in Montreal's West Island area, some went from hotel to hotel  trying to find them. Bouazzi hopes Canadian authorities find them first.

"I hope nobody will find them in the street," he said, "because … I want these people to get back to Tunisia and to face fair justice in Tunisia to bring back all this money they stole."

The CBC's Justin Hayward reported Wednesday that a diplomatic cable from a former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia made clear why Trabelsi is so hated. The cable, released by WikiLeaks, described the Trabelsi family in mafia-like terms and said they provoke the greatest anger among Tunisians.

Range of options

There is a range of options that would allow Canada to freeze assets of members of the ousted regime here, including through the United Nations or at the request of a foreign government, the spokesperson said.  

"Our government is prepared to work with the UN or the government of Tunisia to apply such a freeze. We will use all tools at our disposal to address this situation, in cooperation with the international community."

Added Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, "This is a historic moment in the Middle East. This is a historic moment, I hope, in the history of democracy."

Ben Ali, his wife and their clan have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves: In France, where family members are believed to have assets ranging from apartments to racehorses, the Paris prosecutors' office has opened a preliminary investigation into their holdings.

The former president fled Jan. 14 after 23 years in power, pushed out by weeks of protests driven by anger over joblessness, repression and corruption. His swift departure was followed by riots, looting and unrest.


Protesters evacuate a wounded demonstrator after clashes in Tunis on Wednesday in front of the prime minister's office as the caretaker government prepared to announce adjustments to its lineup. ((Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Associated Press))

On Wednesday, the justice minister released figures that highlighted the massive scope of that unrest: Some 11,029 prisoners, about a third of the country's prison population, were able to escape amid the chaos, he said. Of those, 1,532 prisoners have returned behind bars, he said. Another 74 prisoners died in fires that broke out at several prisons.

Tear gas

Chebbi spoke to reporters as Tunisian police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters who have been pressuring the interim government to get rid of old guard ministers who served under Ben Ali. The clashes broke out in front of the prime minister's office in Tunis, the capital. Acrid clouds of tear gas engulfed hundreds of people, and some demonstrators responded by throwing stones at police.

The state news agency TAP said officials are to announce changes to the interim government later Wednesday. The acting premier must replace five ministers who quit their posts, echoing protesters' concerns.

The caretaker government includes some former opposition leaders, but many top posts, including prime minister and the ministers of defence, foreign affairs and the interior, were retained by Ben Ali cronies.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took that post in 1999 under Ben Ali and has kept it through the upheaval, has vowed to quit politics after elections in the coming months. But he insists he needs to stay on for now to guide Tunisia through a transition to democracy.

With files from CBC