(FILES) A picture taken on December 29, 2010 shows Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist Chokri Belaid speaking as he attends a meeting along with other lawyers in Tunis to express their solidarity with the residents of Sidi Bouzid. Belaid, a senior leader in Tunisia's left-leaning opposition Democratic Patriots party, was shot dead on February 6, 2013 in the morning, his brother told AFP. AFP PHOTO FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
A Tunisian opposition leader critical of the Islamist-led government was gunned down as he left home Wednesday in the first assassination in post-revolutionary Tunisia, setting off anti-government riots that left downtown Tunis choked with tear gas and patrolled by a tank and armored cars.
The killing of Chokri Belaid, a 47-year-old lawyer, heightens tensions in the North African nation whose path from dictatorship to democracy has been seen as a model for the Arab world so far.
Police used tear gas to disperse the thousands of protesters that assembled in front of the Interior Ministry in the center of the capital to accuse the government of allowing the assassination to happen. At one point an ambulance carrying Belaid's body was driven in front of the ministry accompanied by protesters before they too were driven off.
The demonstrators were gathered on the same broad, tree-lined boulevard where weeks of anti-government protests two years ago ousted Tunisia's long-time dictator – and the crowds Wednesday even chanted the same slogan: "The people want the fall of the regime!"
Like two years ago, police soon resorted to tear gas, sending people running for the shelter of nearby buildings yelling "No to Ennahda" and "Ghannouchi assassin," referring to the moderate Islamist party and its leader, who dominate the elected government.
The center of the city was left deserted and littered with stones, guarded by police armored vehicles and patrolled by a tank from the national guard. Knots of riot police chased protesters through the elegant streets downtown.
Elsewhere around the country, police responded to a protest in the coastal city of Sousse with tear gas and Ennahda offices were attacked in several towns, according to Radio Mosaique and Radio Shems FM.
Belaid, a leading member of a leftist alliance of parties known as the Popular Front, was shot as he left his house in the capital, Tunis, and was taken to a nearby medical clinic, where he died, the state news agency TAP reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouch called the assassination a "terrorist act" and said the politician had been shot point-blank several times.
The motive behind his killing is unclear. It comes as Tunisia is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy. The revolution set off revolts across the Arab world and unleashed new social and religious tensions in the Mediterranean nation of 10 million.