Tunisia on edge after protests force out president

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Tunis, Jan 15 (AFP) Tunisia was on edge today afterPresident Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ended his 23 years ofiron-fisted rule by fleeing a wave of deadly social protestsin the first such departure for an Arab leader.

Ben Ali signed a decree handing interim presidentialpowers to Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and flew out ofthe capital Tunis to refuge in Saudia Arabia after failing toquell growing public anger against his regime.

There were scenes of looting overnight in the suburbsof Tunis, witnesses said on state television, but the streetswere mostly empty today with shops shuttered and army patrolsin the city centre visibly stepped up.

French-owned hypermarkets and supermarkets were amongthe properties looted in Tunis and Marsa by dozens of people.

Repeated bursts of gunfire could be heard in thecentre during the night.

In an address on state television yesterday after aday of riots that engulfed Tunis and several other towns inthe North African state, Ghannouchi announced that he hadtaken over and promised social and political reforms.

"I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions andfrom all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity," saidGhannouchi, a 69-year-old career bureaucrat who has served asprime minister on and off since 1999.

The government earlier said new elections would beheld in six months.

Early today, Saudi Arabia announced it had taken inBen Ali "out of concern for the exceptional circumstancesfacing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of thesecurity and stability of their country".

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 andrecognition to the Tunisian people and their democraticaspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way".

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

He later came under growing criticism forauthoritarianism and corruption.

The government has declared a state of emergencyfollowing the recent violence and has put in place adusk-to-dawn curfew across the country under which anyonedisobeying orders or fleeing from security forces can be shot.

Analysts said the abrupt change of power was likely tosend shockwaves around a region dominated by veteran leaderslike the 74-year-old Ben Ali.

The Tunisian president''s departure was the first timethat an Arab leader has been forced to leave office bypressure from public protests.

The rare protests in tightly controlled Tunisia wereunleashed by the suicide attempt last month of 26-year-oldMohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire after policeprevented him from selling vegetables to make a living. (AFP)

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