Tunisia dialogue begins as rival sides draw close

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Tunisia's long delayed national dialogue to set up a new government finally began Friday with both sides expressing optimism about the outcome.

Since the assassination of a left-wing politician in July, the country has been plunged into a crisis that looked set to derail the democratic transition in the country that kicked off the Arab Spring in 2011 by overthrowing its dictator.

The opposition was demanding the government resign for failing to ensure security and restore the economy, while the Islamist-led ruling coalition refused, despite months of mediation by civil society groups.

The main task of the dialogue will be to choose a new technocratic government that will lead the country until elections next year.

"We are beginning the national dialogue to satisfy the needs of the Tunisian people, and we are on track to get out of this crisis and complete the transition process with free-and-fair elections in coming months," said Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party that leads the government and won the most seats in 2011 elections.

Up until Thursday, the opposition _ a collection of left-wing, liberal and conservative parties _ had said it would refuse to join the dialogue until the government agreed to resign within a fixed time period.

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh issued a written statement promising to dissolve the government in three weeks. The opposition then promised to return to work and complete the writing of the constitution and legislation for elections over the next four weeks.

"This is the start of solving the crisis in Tunisia since all the parties have agreed to accept the dialogue and the assembly members will end their walkout," said Nejib Chebbi, leader of the liberal opposition Jumhouri Party, as he entered the building housing the meeting.

With democracy in many of the other countries that overthrew their rulers during the Arab Spring faltering, Tunisia's transition is being closely watched. While the relations among different parties were often acrimonious, Friday's developments suggest the process is back on track.

In addition to severe economic problems, Tunisia has been battling the rise of a hardline Islamist movement that in many cases has armed itself and carried out attacks. On Wednesday, six members of the National Guard were killed in an operation against militants in the impoverished interior.

Al-Qaida linked gunmen also are believed to have bases in the mountainous regions along the Algerian border.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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