Tunisia grapples with looting, new leader sworn in

Tunis, Jan 15 (AP) Tunisia swore in a new interimpresident today -- the second change of power in this NorthAfrican nation in less than 24 hours -- and grappled withlooting, deadly fires and widespread unrest after protestsforced its longtime leader to flee.

At least 42 inmates were killed in two prison firestoday, looters emptied shops and torched the main trainstation and gunfire echoed through the capital.

The interim president -- Fouad Mebazaa, the formerpresident of the lower house of parliament -- ordered thecreation of a unity government that could include theopposition, which had been ignored under President Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali''s 23 years of autocratic rule.

Ben Ali fled the country yesterday for Saudi Arabiafollowing a popular uprising and deadly riots.

Anger over corruption and a lack of jobs and civilliberties ignited a month of protests, but Ben Ali''s departure-- a key demand of demonstrators -- did not quell the unrest.

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

Mebazaa, in his first move after being sworn in,seemed intent on reconciliation and calming tensions. In hisfirst televised address, he said he asked the premier to forma "national unity government in the country''s best interests"in which all political parties will be consulted "withoutexception nor exclusion".

The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. BenAli left abruptly last night and his longtime ally, PrimeMinister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly then with avague assumption of power that left open the possibility thatBen Ali could return.

But today, Constitutional Council President FethiAbdennadher declared the president''s departure was permanentand gave lawmaker Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise newelections. Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.

It was unclear who might emerge as the main candidatesin a post-Ben Ali Tunisia: The autocratic leader has utterlydominated politics for decades, placing his men in positionsof power and sending opponents to jail or into exile.

It was also not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaawould go to invite the opposition into the government. He is apolitical veteran who has been part of the ruling apparatusfor years, including leading parliament for two decades.

Ben Ali''s downfall sent a potentially frighteningmessage to autocratic leaders across the Arab world,especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable untilvery recently. For ordinary people, the unrest that followedhis departure was frightening. (MORE) (AP)

A fire at a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told TheAP today. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear.

Witnesses said another deadly fire also broke out at a prisonfarther down the coast, in Mahdia, but the exact number ofdeaths was not yet known.

Sporadic gunfire was heard in the capital of Tunistoday. Black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket aslooters torched and emptied it. An Associated Pressphotographer saw soldiers fire warning shots and try to stoplooters from sacking the supermarket in Ariana, north of thecapital, to no avail. Shops near the main bazaar were alsolooted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparentlyacting as a spotter for fires or pillaging.

Public television station TV7 broadcast phone callsfrom residents of working-class neighbourhoods on thecapital''s outskirts, describing attacks against their homes byknife-wielding assailants.

"This isn''t good at all. I''m very afraid for the kidsand myself," said Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three inouter Tunis. "If (he) had stayed in the country it would bebetter".

Kamel Fdela, selling oranges and bananas in theneighbourhood, said he wants democracy but was worried aboutwhether that would come to pass. He also feared potential foodshortages with store closed amid the chaos.

"God willing, a real man will take over," he said.

Tunisian airspace reopened today, but some flightswere canceled and others left with delays. Thousands oftourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterraneannation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes andancient ruins. Tour operator Thomas Cook''s German subsidiarysent home 200 tourists from Tunisia yesterday, but 1,800 werestill waiting to be flown out.

President Barack Obama said he applauded the courageand dignity of protesting Tunisians, and urged all parties tokeep calm and avoid violence.

Saudi King Abdullah''s palace confirmed today 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".

It did not give Ben Ali''s exact whereabouts, but asource inside the kingdom said he was in the small city ofAbha, about 500 kilometres south of Jeddah.

The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoidsparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians in Jeddah.

Ben Ali managed the economy of his small country of 10million better than many other Middle Eastern nationsgrappling with calcified economies and booming youngpopulations. He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for Europeantourists, helping create an area of stability in volatileNorth Africa. There was a lack of civil rights and little orno freedom of speech, but a better quality of life formany than in neighbouring countries such as Algeria and Libya.


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