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Tunisian protesters demand government go, but numbers fall

TUNIS (Reuters) - - Thousands of Tunisians crowded a square in Tunis on Saturday to put pressure on the Islamist-led government to step down as it works towards crisis negotiations with the secular opposition.

The protest, meant to kick off a week of rallies against the ruling Ennahda party, brought together about 10,000 protesters according to police estimates, far fewer than the 100,000 who crowded the same square early this month.

"The people want the fall of the regime!" shouted the crowds, using the slogan popularized when Tunisians ousted strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and sparked a wave of uprisings across the Arab world.

Anti-government protests picked up in Tunisia in late July after the second killing of a secular politician by suspected Islamist radicals this year.

Opposition forces were also inspired by protests that led to the overthrow of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government in July. The ensuing political standoff led the assembly drawing up the Tunisia's new constitution to suspend its work.

Since then, Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi has begun consultations with the powerful UGTT trade union aimed at launching negotiations with the secular opposition to find a way out of the crisis.

Opposition parties have so far rejected his offer of a caretaker government to oversee new elections because he wants it to be led by a member of his party. The UGTT plans to continue its mediation work next week.

Protester Nejet Brissi, 41, said she supported the opposition's call for the government to step down and make way for a neutral caretaker cabinet to oversee a new vote.

"Since Ennahda came to power, we have been suffering," she said. "We have been crushed by the rising cost of living. There is no security anymore. We are living in fear of terrorists."

Attacks and agitation by radical Salafi Muslims have increased since the Islamist-led government came to power in late 2011, and its apparent laxity in responding has been a main complaint of the opposition parties.

But the government has cracked down this year after suspected militants assassinated the two politicians and armed radicals began clashing with the army and killing soldiers in western Tunisia.

(Reporting by Mohamed Argoubi; writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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