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Tunisia''s new leader takes power amid chaos


Tunis, Jan 15 (AFP) Tunisia''s new acting presidentpledged an open political system today following the abruptend of former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali''s 23-year ruleas the Arab state veered towards chaos.

Soldiers and tanks were deployed around the capitalTunis after extensive looting of shops and homes and vandalsset fire to the main railway station.

The crackle of gunfire echoed in the largely desertedstreets of the city centre, which was sealed off by securityforces to prevent protests.

Tunisia has been under a state of emergency sinceFriday, which bans any public gatherings and imposes a strictdusk-to-dawn curfew.

After being formally sworn into office to take overfrom Ben Ali, 78-year-old speaker of parliament Foued Mebazaasaid that all Tunisians "without exception" would now be ableto take part in national politics.

"A unity government is necessary in the greaternational interest," Mebazaa added, as the ConstitutionalCouncil declared that a presidential election should be heldin two months'' time.

The exiled head of the main Tunisian Islamist party,which was banned by Ben Ali, told AFP that he now planned toreturn to his homeland.

"The Tunisian intifada has succeeded in collapsing thedictatorship," said Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahdhaparty, speaking from London.

Meanwhile there were chaotic scenes in and aroundTunis today.

Several luxury stolen cars were seen smashed andabandoned near Tunis and some shops and homes had beenpillaged and burnt, with the violence appearing to target inparticular the property of Ben Ali''s family.

Soldiers were seen dragging dozens of suspectedlooters from their cars at gunpoint and loading them intotrucks at a checkpoint outside the city.

In one incident, plainclothes police officers wieldingwooden sticks and truncheons were seen chasing two suspectedlooters and beating them.

In Monastir in central Tunisia at least 42 prisonerswere killed in a fire after one inmate set his mattress alight-- one of several attempted escape bids as inmates apparentlysought to take advantage of the chaos.

Ben Ali signed his resignation yesterday and fled toSaudi Arabia after a wave of protests sparked by the suicideof a 26-year-old university graduate prevented by police fromselling fruit and vegetables to make a living. (AFP)

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