Tunisian President Flees Country Amid Unrest


Tunisia's President has fled the country and the prime minister has announced he is in charge Friday after protests and riots rocked the capital.

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to say he was assuming power amid reports the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country. The army has sealed off the airport and closed Tunisian airspaced. Earlier President Ben Ali announced a state of emergency and fired the government following the worst unrest to hit this North African country in decades.



Tunisia's prime minister announced Friday that he is the interim president of his country's embattled government, the latest development in a story of unrest and public outrage in a tiny but significant corner of the Arab world.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced on Tunisian state TV that he has taken over the responsibilities of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali -- who ruled the nation since 1987.

"Based on constitution law No. 56, if the president of the republic cannot fulfill his duties, there will be an interim decision to move his executive powers to the prime minister," he said. "Considering the fact that at the current time he (Ben Ali) cannot fulfill his duties, I take over today, the powers of the president of the republic."

He pledged to respect the constitution and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms announced this week by Ben Ali, who left the country Friday.

Early Saturday, a senior Saudi interior ministry official said the plane carrying Ben Ali had landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali's departure follows widespread outrage over poor living conditions and repression of rights in recent weeks. Protesters who have held daily demonstrations denounced corruption in the Ben Ali government and had urged that he step down.

Earlier Friday, he dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency, state TV reported. He also called for parliamentary elections to be held within six months. The moves came days after he dumped the interior minister and fired a couple of aides.

Ben Ali was reacting to instability ripping through the North African country. He announced concessions in a nationally televised address Thursday to meet some grievances.

Officials said the emergency declaration was ordered to protect Tunisians and their private property. People are not allowed on the street from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. As part of the emergency, groups of three or more people are subject to arrest and, if they try to flee, can be fired on.

The airport in Tunis was under a lockdown Friday night, with the facility closed and ringed by soldiers. Reporters driving from the airport into the city were stopped several times at military checkpoints. A few gunshots could be heard at the airport, but otherwise the streets were quiet.

Earlier Friday in the capital, police, wielding batons and firing tear gas, dispersed demonstrators, a show of force that aggravated what had been a peaceful gathering.

Security forces were seen beating protesters, who attempted to flee. Fires were seen in the center of Tunis and downtown.

The incident underscored concerns among Tunisians and in the international community that security forces have been overreacting to peaceful gatherings of protesters.

Tunisia under Ben Ali has been a pro-Western state supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East and in its efforts against terrorism.

It has been a relatively stable and more prosperous country in what diplomats call "a rough neighborhood."

The education level in Tunisia is relatively high for the Arab world, and the country is closely linked to France and French culture.

Events in Tunisia were being watched closely elsewhere. In Cairo, Egypt, about 45 protesters stood outside the Tunisian Embassy and chanted, "Revolution in Tunisia is revolution in Egypt!"

They promised to hold a larger demonstration Saturday evening.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was closely monitoring the events. "We condemn the violence and urge restraint on all sides," she said in a statement.

She urged the Tunisian government to "respect the right of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views" and called for "free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."

The United States, France, and Britain have issued travel advisories, warning against nonessential visits, and a tourism company announced the evacuation of 2,000 German vacationers.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the organization is monitoring the situation and has called for restraint, respect for freedom of expression and dialogue to resolve problems peacefully.

Earlier, thousands congregated in front of the Interior Ministry and chanted slogans such as "Get out!" and "Freedom for Tunisia!"

Haykal Maki, a pro-opposition lawyer who was in the throng, said protesters were seeking "regime change," the resignation of Ben Ali and lawsuits addressing the regime's corruption.

Recent diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia obtained by WikiLeaks reveal growing disquiet with the government -- and especially nepotism within the government.

WikiLeaks published a 2009 cable recounting a lavish dinner for the U.S. ambassador given by Ben Ali's son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, a prominent businessman.

The ambassador wrote in the cable: "After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yogurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez (a high-end French resort), along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake."

The wave of demonstrations in Tunisia -- in which people protested high unemployment, alleged corruption, rising prices and limitations on rights -- was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, a man who fatally torched himself in December after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income.

Ben Ali on Thursday had vowed to cut prices of basic foodstuffs, to lift censorship and to ensure police do not use live ammunition except in self-defense, and he implied that he would not run again for president.

"Enough violence," Ben Ali said after at least 21 people had died in days of riots.

Organized mainly by the country's lawyers' union and other unions, Friday's demonstration took place under the watchful eyes of a contingent of riot police officers.

But their presence did not keep protesters from slamming the government and Ben Ali. "Public trial for the president's family!" some shouted. "Yes to water and bread, but no to Ben Ali!"