Friday, January 14, 2011
ROCK THE CASBAH
Tunisia's president has stepped down after 23 years in power amid unprecedented protests on the streets of the capital Tunis.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he would be taking over from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
A state of emergency has been declared amid protests over corruption, unemployment and rising prices.
BBC sources say Mr Ben Ali has flown to the Mediterranean island of Malta, but this has yet to be confirmed.
Earlier, police fired tear gas as thousands of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry.
Troops have surrounded the country's main international airport, Tunis Carthage, and the country's air space has been closed.
In an address on state television, Mr Ghannouchi said: "Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties."
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was only Tunisia's second president since independence from France in 1956 Mr Ghannouchi, 69, a former finance minister who has been prime minister since 1999, will serve as interim president.
Earlier, the president - who had said in a TV address on Thursday night that he would relinquish power in 2014 - said he was dismissing the government and dissolving parliament, and that new elections would be held within six months.
The state of emergency decree bans more than three people from gathering together in the open, and imposes a night-time curfew. Security forces have been authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders.
Human rights groups say dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on the protests.
UK tour operator Thomas Cook is pulling out all 1,800 of its customers currently on holiday in Tunisia.
Thomas Cook and another holiday company, Thomson First Choice, are cancelling departures to Tunisia scheduled for Sunday 16 January. However, Thomson are not bringing home visitors already in Tunisia early.
Police fire tear gas at the protesters outside the interior ministry
The UK, the US and France are among the countries advising against non-essential travel to Tunisia.
"The situation is unpredictable and there is the potential for violence to flare up, raising the risk of getting caught up in demonstrations," the UK Foreign Office said in its latest travel advisory.
In his speech on Thursday night, Mr Ben Ali, who had governed Tunisia since 1987, announced he would stand down in 2014. He said there was "no presidency for life" in Tunisia. He said he did not intend to amend the constitution to remove the upper age limit for presidential candidates, which would have allowed him to stand for a further term in 2014.
The president, who earlier this week had blamed the unrest on "terrorists", also said he felt "very, very deep and massive regret" over the deaths of civilians in the protests.
Mr Ben Ali, 74, was only Tunisia's second president since independence from France in 1956. He was last re-elected in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote.