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In turnaround, ruling Tunisia Islamists will meet rivals

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's governing Islamist party Ennahda switched course on Sunday and agreed to meet with opposition parties to seek a consensus on resolving the country's worst political crisis since its 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

Fethi Ayadi, chairman of the party's supreme council, told journalists the talks could start by the end of the week and could consider opposition demands for a caretaker technocrat government to find a way out of the current standoff.

Ennahda chairman Rached Ghannouchi firmly rejected that demand on Thursday, prompting criticism from opposition leaders who accuse his party of incompetent leadership and complacency toward threats from violent hardline Salafis.

"We call for an immediate dialogue that brings together all parties of the opposition and the governing coalition, without any conditions," Ayadi said.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions that overthrew long-standing autocratic regimes, has been in turmoil for the past three weeks after suspected Salafi gunmen staged the second assassination of a secularist politician this year.

The army ouster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Mursi also emboldened Tunisia's secular opposition to take to the streets trying to force out Ennahda, which won 41 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly in late 2011.

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Ayadi said Ennahda's decision came after a rare and previously unannounced private meeting in Paris on Friday between Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister and the head of the main opposition Nida Touns party.

"After political discussions, we think this dialogue can start at the end of this week," Ayadi said.

Ennahda, which governs with two smaller secular parties, has come under heavy pressure from the Salvation Front of opposition parties, the country's powerful UGTT trade union federation and other interest groups to step aside for a caretaker government.

Its conciliatory gesture came a day before it meets with leaders of the UGTT, whose million-strong national membership in the public and private sectors make it the only group capable of wielding outside pressure on the squabbling politicians.

UGTT Secretary General Hussein Abassi told Reuters on Friday he rejects parallels in the Tunisia media between his role and that of Egyptian military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but does want to help push the rival parties to a consensus.

Apart from demanding Ennahda step aside, some of its critics also want to dissolve the constituent assembly, which missed its deadline to write a new constitution 10 months ago, but others want it to wrap up its work soon.

National elections would soon follow in either scenario.

Faced with such broad opposition, Ghannouchi offered on Thursday to form an all-party government, but drew the line at surrendering Ennahda's advantage as winner of the 2011 election.

Ayadi hinted at the possibility of a caretaker government emerging from the talks, saying: "Our proposal is still a government of national unity, but we are open to other constructive proposals."

Although Egypt and Tunisia are both in turmoil over the role of Islamists in their post-revolutionary governments, analysts in Tunisia rule out a Cairo-style military takeover in the small country in North Africa of 11 million people.

Unlike its Egyptian counterpart, the Tunisian army has no tradition of interfering in politics and also has no parallel business empire to defend as Cairo's generals have.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Will Dunham)

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