MONTREAL - Tunisian Montrealers are anxiously watching the conflict unfolding in their homeland.

The North African country has been brought to a virtual standstill as thousands of demonstrators take to the streets to protest high unemployment and the country's stifling political climate.

"Right now we're very, very proud of the Tunisian people that stood up for their rights for a better life, for justice for freedom, for democracy," Haroun Bouazzi, a spokesman for a local Tunisian solidarity group, told CTV Montreal, "but we're very scared because we see a real massacre in the streets."

The protesters have taken issue with the autocratic rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family's lavish lifestyle, with El Materi often cited as the prime example.

Authorities have resorted to violence to quell the demonstrations, which have spread to the capital Tunis. At least 23 people, possibly dozens more, have been killed.

A rally is planned on Saturday afternoon in Montreal's Dorchester Square.

Tunisian Montrealers say it's meant as a message of support for those struggling in their homeland.

Rumours denied

One of the most powerful members of Tunisia's ruling class is denying rumours he fled to Montreal amid protests in the North African country that threaten the government's stability.

Mohamed Sakher El Materi, a politician and billionaire son-in-law of the Tunisian president, has posted a video on his Facebook page that seeks to assure his supporters he is still in Tunisia.

"I want to answer those who said that I fled: we don't want to leave'' El Materi says in Arabic. "We have no reason to flee our vast and beautiful country.''

The video claims to have been shot in Tunisia and was posted online Thursday morning, eastern time.

At one point in the five-minute clip, El Materi tells someone offscreen: "Look I'm right in front of you. That's proof that I'm in Tunisia.''

Since Tuesday, the Internet has been rife with reports that El Materi left the country for Montreal.

The couple has a two-year-old daughter who was born in Canada, and they own a home reportedly worth $2.5 million in Montreal's upscale Westmount neighbourhood.

According to Bouazzi, close to 100 critics of the regime rushed to Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport to greet an incoming plane Tuesday.

Witnesses saw Tunisian consular officials at the airport as well as a waiting limousine, but no one actually saw the couple, Bouazzi said.

A group then made their way to the Westmount home, where there was no answer at the door.

He also said a phone call was placed to a local hotel. A receptionist allegedly told the caller that a reservation for El Materi had been cancelled.

"There is no proof of a date on the video which claims it was shot today (Thursday) in Tunisia,'' Bouazzi said. "There is nothing to say the video wasn't shot earlier.''

Bouazzi suggested El Materi is likely still in Montreal, but that no one has seen him.

Calls to the Tunisian consulate in Montreal were not returned. Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs also did not respond to media inquiries.

El Materi's name is often circulated as a possible heir to Ben Ali, who has ruled the country since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1987.

El Materi owns Princess El Materi Holdings, a company that includes several newspapers. He is also a member of Parliament and a leading official in Ben Ali's ruling party.