Interim president sworn in as Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia

Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Tunisia's parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazzaa has been sworn in as caretaker leader after the Constitutional Council declared that Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi did not have the right to assume power. More than 50 dead in Tunisia prison fireHolidaymakers evacuated as Tunisia reopens airspaceFrance finally abandons its Tunisian allyPresident forced out of office amid growing unrest


The move comes after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia amid a wave of deadly protests.

Ending 23 years of rule, Ben Ali signed a decree handing interim presidential powers to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

The Tunisian president's departure was the first time that an Arab leader has been forced to leave office by pressure from public protests.

The move came amid fierce street riots in the capital Tunis, and surrounding suburbs, in which at least 13 people were killed – and a state of emergency was declared.

Following the news that Ben Ali had quit, there were scenes of both jubilation and looting overnight, with resident defying a dawn-to dusk curfew. Repeated bursts of gunfire could be heard.

But the streets were mostly empty on Saturday, with shops shuttered and army patrols in the city. Taking over Friday night, Ghannouchi addressed the nation, promising social and political reforms.

"I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions and from all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity," said Ghannouchi, who has served as prime minister on and off since 1999.

The government earlier said new elections would be held in six months.

Early on Saturday, Saudi Arabia announced it had taken in Ben Ali "out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country".

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands totally alongside the brotherly Tunisian people and hopes that they will close ranks in order to overcome this difficult period in their history," a palace statement said.

US President Barack Obama meanwhile hailed the "courage" and "dignity" of Tunisian protesters and called for "free and fair elections in the near future".

The European Union also expressed "support and recognition to the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way".

Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987 at a time of stagnation for Tunisia and he was initially hailed by many people for enacting liberal economic reforms as well as nipping in the bud the Islamist Ennahdha party.

He later came under growing criticism for authoritarianism and corruption.

Tunisia borders two other authoritarian regimes - Algeria and Libya.

The rare protests in tightly controlled Tunisia were unleashed by the suicide last month of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after police prevented him from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living.

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