Obama applauds Tunisia's 'courage' as ousted president arrives at Saudi Arabia

President Barack Obama on Friday condemned violence against Tunisian citizens and called on the government to hold free and fair elections soon.

"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," Obama said in a statement.

"I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."

A surge of popular protests over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia's veteran leader from power on Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia confirmed the former Tunisian president and his family had arrived in the kingdom early on Saturday morning to stay for an unspecified period of time.

The kingdom welcomed the arrival of the President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family," a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

A Saudi official told Reuters Ben Ali was in the port city of Jeddah.

"The kingdom states its complete support for the Tunisian people and hopes all Tunisians stand together to overcome the difficult stage in their history," SPA said.

It said the royal court decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the "exceptional circumstances" Tunisia is going through.

Saudi Arabia has a history of receiving deposed rulers and out-of-favor politicians. Former Uganda dictator Idi Amin spent his final years in Jeddah.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said earlier that he would act as president until elections could be held.

"The current circumstances do not allow for the return of Ben Ali to Tunisia," Ghannouchi told Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera by telephone early on Saturday.

He said Tunisian opposition figures based abroad were free to return to the North African country of 10 million.