Prime minister takes over as Ben Ali flees Tunisian turmoil

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has taken over as interim president after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (pictured) left the country in the wake of weeks of protest against his 23-year rule. Ben Ali arrived in Saudi Arabia early on Saturday.


Ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali arrived in Saudi Arabia early on Saturday after weeks of anti-government unrest in his North African country.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has taken over as interim president until new elections are organised. Ghannouchi has promised to adhere to the constitution and ease the spreading chaos.

Earlier on Friday the authorities had declared a state of emergency and a night-time curfew in an attempt to put an end to a violent face-off between protesters and police that has been spiralling out of control since mid-December, resulting in dozens of deaths.

Ben Ali had also dismissed the government and called for early legislative elections to be held within six months.

But the moves did little to quell the protests, as thousands gathered along one of the city’s main streets on Friday in response to a call for a general strike organised by Tunisia’s only legal trade union.

“Riot police who had surrounded the protesters on both sides of Bourguiba Avenue (one of the capital city’s main streets) hurled tear gas when people started climbing the walls of the Interior Ministry,” said Cyril Vanier, FRANCE 24’s special envoy in Tunis. He added that the area resembled a “battlefield”.

Hundreds of demonstrators also took to the streets outside the capital, in places like Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa, where anti-authority chants such as “Ben Ali, get out” could be heard.

Meanwhile, at least 12 more people were said to have been killed in clashes with police in Tunis and the surrounding suburbs late Thursday, according to medical sources. Prior to those reports, the International Federation for Human Rights had put the death toll since the beginning of the riots in mid-December at 66.

The wave of unrest was set off when a street vendor lit himself on fire Dec. 17 after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit.

Reacting to the violence, Tunisia’s ambassador to the UN's Paris-based cultural organisation UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, announced that he was stepping down. “I can no longer vouch for what is going on in my country,” he said on FRANCE 24.

In a televised speech Thursday evening, Ben Ali, who had been president of the North African country since 1987, had tried to appease the demonstrators by declaring he would not change the constitution in a way that would allow him to run again.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian opposition suggested they were eyeing a role in running the country. “I am pleasantly surprised,” Nejiib Chebbi, leader of the main opposition party PDP, told FRANCE 24 on Friday. “Now we need to establish a transitional government, because Tunisians can no longer stand the president’s exclusive hold on power.”

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