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Friday, 14 January 2011
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali forced to flee Tunisia as protesters claim victory
Tunisian PM Mohammed Ghannouchi declares temporary rule • Sarkozy refuses refuge to Ben Ali, French media reports
Tunisia's president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country tonight after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world's most repressive regimes.
Ben Ali was variously reported to be in Malta, France and Saudi Arabia at the end of an extraordinary day which had seen the declaration of a state of emergency, the evacuation of tourists of British and other nationalities, and an earthquake for the authoritarian politics of the Middle East and north Africa.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's ousted president. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
French media reported tonight that President Nicolas Sarkozy had refused refuge to Ben Ali, although it was denied any request had come from him.
In Tunisia, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced he had taken over as interim president, vowing to respect the constitution and restore stability for Tunisia's 10.5 million citizens.
"I call on the sons and daughters of Tunisia, of all political and intellectual persuasions, to unite to allow our beloved country to overcome this difficult period and to return to stability," he said in a broadcast.
But there was confusion among protesters about what will happen next, and concern that Ben Ali might return before elections could be held. "We must remain vigilant," warned an email from the Free Tunis group, monitoring developments to circumvent an official news blackout.
Ben Ali, 74, had been in power since 1987. On Thursday he announced he would not stand for another presidential term in 2014, but Tunisia had been radicalised by the weeks of violence and the killings of scores of demonstrators.
Today in the capital police fired teargas to disperse crowds demanding his immediate resignation. The state of emergency and a 12-hour curfew did little to restore calm. Analysts said the army would be crucial.
Tonight , soldiers were guarding ministries, public buildings and the state TV building. Public meetings were banned, and the security forces were authorised to fire live rounds.
Tunis's main avenues were deserted except for scores of soldiers. Protesters who had earlier been beaten and clubbed by police in the streets still sheltered in apartment buildings. Army vehicles were stationed outside the interior ministry.
Opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of Ben Ali's loudest critics, captured the sense of historic change. "This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it's the succession," he said.He added: "It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose."
Al-Jazeera television, broadcasting the story across an Arab world which has been transfixed by the Tunisian drama, reported that a unnamed member of Ben Ali's wife's family had been detained by security forces at the capital's airport. Hatred of the president's close relatives, symbols of corruption and cronyism, has galvanised the opposition in recent weeks. Tunisians were riveted by revelations of US views of the Ben Ali regime in leaked WikiLeaks cables last month.
Ben Ali's western friends, adapting to the sudden change, asked for a peaceful end to the crisis. "We condemn the ongoing violence against civilians in Tunisia, and call on the Tunisian authorities to fulfil the important commitments ... including respect for basic human rights and a process of much-needed political reform," said a White House spokesman.