Tunisian Salafi leader on Monday escaped from a mosque that had been surrounded by security forces seeking to arrest him over clashes at the U.S. embassy last week, a Reuters witness said.
Saif-Allah Benahssine, leader of the Tunisian branch of the hardline Islamist Ansar al-Sharia, slipped away after hundreds of his followers stormed out of al-Fatah mosque in Tunis, some of them wielding sticks and creating panic among pedestrians.
A few minutes earlier, around 1,000 riot and anti-terrorist police forces had retreated by some 200 meters (660 feet) from the mosque for unexplained reasons, witnesses said. Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
During a sermon he gave at the mosque, Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh, called during his speech for the resignation of Interior Minister Ali Latayedh, a member of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
Inside and outside the mosque, young hardline Islamists shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest) and “Obama! Obama! we are also Osama!” in reference to the slain Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“We will never hand over Abu Iyadh,” they shouted, while calling for jihad and threatening Jews with the slogan: “Mohammed’s army is back!”
Abu Iyadh denied to followers he was involved in violent protests at the U.S. embassy in which four Tunisians were killed and 29 wounded. The mosque is located between two main arteries in the capital, and where a large number of those who took part in Friday’s violent protest outside the U.S. embassy set out from.
On Friday, the Salafi leader escaped arrest when the police visited his house, shortly after the violence that took the security forces nearly three hours to bring under control, according to one of his supporters.
“The police came on Friday evening to the house of Abu Iyadh, but they didn't manage to arrest him because he wasn’t there,” he told AFP.
Meanwhile, around 100 U.S. citizens have been evacuated from Tunisia since the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis by the angry protesters, AFP cited several sources as saying on Monday.
“The American nationals were evacuated on Sunday,” a diplomatic source told AFP, without saying how many had left the country.
A security source said 100 Americans, including embassy officials and residents, left the capital on a Tunisair flight.
Washington ordered non-essential diplomatic staff and their relatives to leave Sudan and Tunisia following violent anti-American protests at the U.S. missions there that killed six people in total.
Protests over the trailer of a film mocking Islam published on YouTube first broke out on Tuesday in Egypt and Libya, where an armed mob assaulted the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in an attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The demonstrations then spread to Muslim countries around the world, with protesters hurling petrol bombs and storming the sprawling U.S. embassy complex in Tunis on Friday, before police fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse them.
The U.S. State Department advised American citizens against “all travel” to Tunisia after the attack, and urged those remaining in the country to exercise “extreme caution and avoid demonstrations.”