Tunisia's interim president backs a unity govt
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Jan 15, 9:26 AM (ET)

By ELAINE GANLEY and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Tunisia has sworn in a new interim president and he has asked the prime minister to form a unity government.

Longtime autocratic ruler President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country Friday for Saudi Arabia following a popular uprising and deadly riots.

Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament, was sworn in as chief of state on Saturday. He says he asked the premier to form a "national unity government in the country's best interests."

Mebazaa said in his first televised address that all political parties including the opposition will be consulted "without exception nor exclusion."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Unrest engulfed Tunisia on Saturday after a popular rebellion forced the president to flee: Dozens of inmates were killed in two prison fires, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station and gunfire echoed through the capital.

Power changed hands for the second time in 24 hours in this North African country after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country Friday for Saudi Arabia. The head of the Constitutional Court declared Saturday that Ben Ali has left office for good - not temporarily - and rejected the prime minister's move to assume power.

The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, took the highest office instead, and was given two months to organize new elections.

Anger over corruption and the lack of jobs ignited a month of protests, but Ben Ali's departure - a key demand of demonstrators - has not calmed the unrest. While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali's departure rioters burned the main train station in Tunis and looted shops.

A fire in a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told The AP on Saturday. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear. Witnesses said another deadly fire also broke out at a prison farther down the coast, in Mahdia, but the exact number of deaths there was not yet known.

Sporadic gunfire was heard in the capital of Tunis on Saturday. Smoke billowed over a giant supermarket outside the capital as looters torched and emptied it. The army fired warning shots to scare them away, to little avail.

An Associated Press photographer saw soldiers try to stop looters from sacking the huge supermarket in the Ariana area north of the capital. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfire crackled anew Saturday morning.

Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital's outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.

Tunisian airspace reopened Saturday, but some flights were canceled and others left with delays. Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins. Tour operator Thomas Cook's German subsidiary sent home 200 tourists from Tunisia on Friday, but 1,800 were still waiting to be flown out.

Saudi King Abdullah's palace confirmed Saturday that the ousted president and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia."

There was no official announcement about Ben Ali's whereabouts in Saudi Arabia, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) south of Jeddah. The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

When Ben Ali left after 23 years of iron-fisted rule, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return. But Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher said Saturday the departure was permanent and, under the constitution, lawmaker Mebazaa has up to 60 days to organize new elections.

Ben Ali's downfall sent a potentially frightening message to autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable until very recently.

He managed the economy of his small country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations grappling with calcified economies and booming young populations. He turned Tunisia into a beach haven for European tourists, helping create an area of stability in volatile North Africa. There was a lack of civil rights and little or no freedom of speech, but a better quality of life for many than in neighboring countries such as Algeria and Libya.

Ben Ali won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make the economy more competitive and attract business. Growth last year was at 3.1 percent.

Unemployment, however, was officially 14 percent but actually far higher - 52 percent - among the young. Despair among job-seeking young graduates was palpable.

The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused generalized anger against the regime into a widespread, outright revolt.

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

Arabs across the region celebrated news of the Tunisian uprising on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Thousands of tweets congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the Internet, and many people changed their profile pictures to Tunisian flags.

Egyptian activists opposed to President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade regime looked to the events in Tunisia with hope. About 50 gathered outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo to celebrate with singing and dancing. They chanted, "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him, too!"

Ben Ali, 74, came to power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987. He took over from a man formally called President-for-Life - Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia who set the Muslim country on a pro-Western course after independence from France in 1956.

Ben Ali removed Bourguiba from office for "incompetence," saying he had become too old and senile to rule, but after a brief period of reforms, Tunisia's political evolution stopped.

Ben Ali consistently won elections with questionable tallies: In 2009, he was re-elected for a fifth five-year term with 89 percent of the vote - and that was the lowest official percentage of any of his victories.

U.S. diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks called Tunisia a "police state" and described the corruption there, saying Ben Ali had lost touch with his people. Social networks like Facebook helped spread the comments to the delight of ordinary Tunisians, who have complained about the same issues for years.

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Nicolas Garriga, Oleg Cetinic in Tunis, Hassan Ammar in Doha, Qatar and Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.






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