Tunisia's president leaves country as clashes intensify


TUNISIAN PRESIDENT Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, an authoritarian power for the past 23 years, fled the country last night as weeks of unrest culminated in thousands taking to the streets of the capital, Tunis.

In a television address, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi – who is close to Mr Ben Ali – said he had taken over as interim president, and pledged to respect the constitution and restore stability. He announced he would hold coalition talks today.

“Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties,” he said.

“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.”

Confusion surrounded Mr Ben Ali’s whereabouts last night. He is understood to have left Tunis aboard his private plane, with Al-Jazeera television reporting he was flying to the Gulf. The foreign ministry in Paris said it had not received a request to land from the presidents aircraft. Earlier, he had declared a state of emergency and dismissed his government in an attempt to quell intensifying clashes between protesters and police.

In the sign of the authorities’ disarray he warned that demonstrators would be shot – having 24 hours earlier promised the security forces would be ordered to stop firing live rounds.

Another of Mr Ben Ali’s concessions – a declaration he would not seek a sixth term in office in 2014 – failed to stanch unrest that has continued for weeks. Instead, the government’s admissions of fallibility appeared to embolden the protesters.

Reports suggested thousands gathered at the interior ministry, a symbol of Mr Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, and openly chanted for his immediate removal. Within hours, the president had left the country.

Police reportedly fired and sprayed tear gas to disperse crowds in Tunis, while a curfew was imposed and public gatherings of more than three people forbidden.

Soldiers surrounded the main international airport and the country’s airspace was closed, causing Air France and other airlines to cancel services to and from Tunisia.

The unprecedented confrontations in a country praised by western powers as a model of regional stability have been closely watched by other Arab leaders.

International pressure had been growing on Mr Ben Ali in recent days, with France – Tunisia’s former colonial power and its biggest trading partner – breaking its silence on the unrest and joining the US in condemning “disproportionate” violence against civilians.

The White House said last night it was closely monitoring events in the north African country and that it believed the Tunisian people had the right to choose their leaders.

Despite the prime minister having indicated Mr Ben Ali’s departure was temporary, opposition leader Najib Chebbi, one of the president’s most outspoken critics, described the events as “regime change”.

“This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession,” he told French television. “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

Some 12 people were reported dead in clashes over Thursday night and Friday morning. Before those casualties, the official toll stood at 23, though the UN said rights groups put the figure at about 40.

The small number of Irish holiday-makers in Tunisia were understood to have been safely evacuated. Steven Houston from Co Donegal said the atmosphere in Tunis was “very tense” before he returned to Dublin via London yesterday.

“A demonstration ran into me basically as I was walking up the street the day after I arrived. The demonstrators were being chased by the cops. They ran up the street towards me and I dodged it. I ran,” he said.

“Everywhere was shut, absolutely everywhere was shut and [the atmosphere] was pretty bad. There were cops everywhere – they had batons.

“There were guys who I saw hanging out with the cops – they kind of looked like irregulars or something like that . . . It was pretty tense. Very tense.”