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Tunisian president steps down amid civil unrest

Tunisian President Ben Ali has stepped aside after failing to quell the worst anti-government unrest in his two decades in power. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken charge.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi

Ghannouchi says he wants to implement reforms

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has left the country, state television reported on Friday. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he is assuming power in Tunisia.

"I call on Tunisians of all political persuasions and from all regions to demonstrate patriotism and unity," Ghannouchi said solemnly on state television, adding that he would respect the constitution and restore stability.

"I vow that I will respect the constitution and implement the political, economic and social reforms that have been announced ... in consultation with all political sides including political parties and civil society."

It was first unclear where Ben Ali had traveled to, but the official Saudi Press Agency reported he had taken a plane to the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.

"The kingdom welcomed the arrival of the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family," a statement said.

Ben Ali has faced mounting demands from protesters and opposition parties to quit power, after ruling Tunisia for 23 years. The 74-year-old leader came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, taking over from a man formally called "President-for-Life".

State of emergency

police with protesters

Over 60 protesters have been killed in clashes with police

Before leaving the country, the president fired his government and called an early parliamentary election.

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali's most outspoken critics, described Friday's events as a "regime change".

"This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it's the succession," he told France's I-Tele TV. "It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose."

The president's departure comes hours after he imposed a state of emergency across the country and a nighttime curfew.

"The president has given orders to Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to create a new government. Following acts of violence, it has been decided to introduce a state of emergency in the country to protect Tunisian citizens," state television said.

"This state of emergency means that any gathering of more than three people is forbidden, that arms will be used by security forces in cases where a suspect does not stop when asked to do so by the police and thirdly, a curfew (is imposed) from 5:00 this evening until 7:00 in the morning for an indefinite period."

Month long uproar

Demonstrators have been protesting, among other things, about high unemployment rates, as well as what they said was the increasingly repressive government of Ben Ali.

The unrest was sparked when police prevented an unemployed graduate from selling fruit without a license and he set fire to himself, dying shortly afterwards of his burns.

Since mid-December more than 60 protesters have been killed in anti-government demonstrations that were brutally repressed by the police, who fired on crowds with live bullets.

As the violence escalated on Friday, Thomas Cook travel agency evacuated 2,000 German tourists from Tunisia. Thousands of holidaymakers from France, Britain and Ireland have also been rescued.

former President Ben Ali

The whereabouts of former president Ben Ali is still unknown

Air France said it had temporarily suspended all flights to the Tunisian capital due to the closure of air space. France's BFM television reported that a French plane carrying tourists to the north African country had turned back after Tunisian airspace was closed.

The German foreign office has increased its travel alert to the country. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was becoming increasingly concerned by the situation.

"Further violent demonstrations and excesses are to be expected in the country. We can't rule out that the situation won't escalate further," he said.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (AFP, Reuters, AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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