Tunisian president''s departure called permanent

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Tunis (Tunisia), Jan 15 (AP) Tunisia''s president hasleft power for good, the president of the country''sConstitutional Court said today, declaring that the leader ofthe lower house of parliament will assume power untilelections are held in two months.

It was the second time power has changed hands inthis North African country in less than 24 hours.

Massive street protests over corruption andunemployment forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to fleethe country Friday night after 23 years of iron-fisted rule.

Saudi King Abdullah''s palace confirmed early Saturday that theousted president and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia,saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace andsecurity to return to the people of Tunisia."

When Ben Ali left, Prime Minister MohammedGhannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of powerthat left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.

But Constitutional Council President FethiAbdennadher said today that Ben Ali has permanently vacatedhis position and lawmaker Fouad Mebazaa has up to 60 days toorganize new elections.

Ben Ali''s ouster was the key demand of a month ofprotests that have swept the Mediterranean nation known forits sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.

While the protests were mostly peaceful, after BenAli''s departure rioters burned the main train station in thecapital of Tunis and looted shops.

An Associated Press photographer saw soldiersintervening today to try to stop looters from sacking a hugesupermarket in the Ariana area, 30 kilometers (20 miles) northof the capital. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital,apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfirecrackled anew today morning.

Overnight, public television station TV7 broadcastphone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods onthe capital''s outskirts, recounting attacks against theirhomes by knife-wielding assailants.

Ghannouchi, who held power for less than 24 hours _told TV stations overnight that he had ordered the army andother security forces to intervene immediately in thoseneighborhoods.

There has been no official announcement about BenAli''s whereabouts in Saudi Arabia, but a source inside thekingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 500kilometers south of Jeddah. The source said Ben Ali had beentaken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations byTunisians living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of thesensitivity of the matter. (AP)

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