TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's secular opposition parties and leading civil society groups said on Thursday the Islamist-led government must respond by this weekend to a trade union offer to mediate in the country's political standoff.
Rached Ghannouchi, chairman of the governing Islamist Ennahda party, has declared himself ready to join the mediation, meant to lead to new elections, but leaders in his party and its two secular coalition partners have expressed reservations.
The powerful UGTT trade union federation, which has offered to host the mediation talks, did not spell out what it would do if the government did not respond. It has called protest strikes in the past and could do so if no progress is made.
Tunisia has been in a political deadlock for a month following the second assassination this year of a secular politician by suspected Islamist militants. The assembly writing a new constitution has suspended its work because of unrest.
The UGTT, the UTICA employers' union and two groups representing lawyers and human rights activists agreed with the opposition parties "to set a deadline at the end of this week for Ennahda and the governing coalition to give a final response to the UGTT proposal", a trade union spokesman said.
He gave no other details and there was no immediate reaction from government parties. Tunisia, a Muslim country of 11 million inhabitants, has its weekend on Saturday and Sunday.
Under the proposal by the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT), the government would step down to make way for a caretaker cabinet to hold free and fair elections. The assembly would resume its work and finish the constitution soon.
Ennahda Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said this week his government could not step down until the constitution was written and all parties agreed on the composition of the neutral government and the modalities for the new election.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Tom Heneghan; editing by Andrew Roche)