Tunisian government and opponents to start talks Saturday


* Talks aim to defuse months of political deadlock

* Negotiations to agree new government and election date

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists andtheir secular opponents will start three weeks of negotiationson Saturday to allow the government to step down and make wayfor a caretaker cabinet until elections, a labour unionmediating the talks said.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party agreed at the weekend toa deal under which the government would resign after the talksas a way to end months of political deadlock in the countrywhere the Arab Spring uprisings began.

The powerful UGTT union, which brokered talks between thesides, said in a statement on Thursday that the negotiationswould begin on Saturday, to make way for a non-partisanadministration and set a date for parliamentary and presidentialelections.

"The start of the dialogue is a step to ending this crisis,"said Lotfi Zitoun, a senior Ennahda official.

The crisis erupted in July after the killing of anopposition leader by suspected Islamist militants - the secondthis year. The turmoil has weakened the North African country'seconomic outlook and raised concerns among its internationallenders.

Opposition parties took to the streets to demand theIslamist-led government step down after the killing, accusingEnnahda of being lax on suspected militants.

Since autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011,divisions have widened over the political role of Islam in whathas long been one of the Muslim world's most secular nations.

Those differences may still hamper talks where both sidesmust agree on how to finish writing a new constitution, on whento hold elections, and on other issues such as the compositionof a new electoral body to oversee any vote.

Tunisia's path towards democracy has been generally peacefulcompared to Egypt, where troops overthrew an Islamist presidentafter mass protests against his rule, and neighbouring Libya,where a weak central government is struggling to assert itselfagainst ex-rebel militias.

In contrast, Ennahda shared power in a coalition with twosmall secular partners, and has tried to defuse concerns that itcould seek to impose a strict Islamist programme impinging onTunisia's liberal education and women's rights.

But the political turmoil, and opposition concerns that thegovernment has failed to clamp down on hardline Islamistmilitants, have threatened to undermine a transition seen bymany as the most promising among the region's nascentdemocracies.

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