By Tarek Amara
TUNIS, Sept 17 (Reuters) - A Tunisian Salafist 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 during protests against an anti-Islam film, 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 wielding sticks and creating panic among pedestrians.
A security source told Reuters Benahssine was wanted over Friday’s protest in which four people were killed and 46 injured when police opened fire to quell hundreds of protesters who smashed windows, hurled petrol bombs and stones and started fires in the embassy.
On Monday, about 1,000 riot and anti-terrorist police surrounded the mosque where Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh, was meeting hundreds of his followers. They later retreated to 200 metres (650 feet) from the mosque for unexplained reasons, witnesses said. Interior Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
Ansar al-Sharia has endorsed a Facebook call to protest against the short film, made with private funds in the United States and trailed online, which portrayed the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a womaniser. It has triggered protests across the Muslim world.
The moderate Islamist party Ennahda, which leads Tunisia’s governing coalition, advised against joining the protests.
Moncef Marzouki, the secular president, condemned Friday’s embassy attack as unacceptable and said it could hurt relations with Washington. Tunisia’s economy is reliant on Western aid after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of its long-time ruler last year amid popular protests.
Libyan officials suspect the Libyan branch of Ansar al-Sharia was behind an attack in which the U.S. envoy to Libya and three other Americans were killed during an anti-film protest last week in Benghazi.