Supermarket on fire in Tunisia
A supermarket on fire after it was sacked and looted in Bizerte, Tunisia, January 15, 2011. Photo by AP
Text size

Unrest engulfed Tunisia on Saturday after a popular rebellion forced the president to flee: Dozens of inmates were killed in a prison fire, 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 temporally, negating the prime minister's move to assume power.

Tunisia has sworn in a new interim president on Saturday and he has asked the prime minister to form a unity government.

Fouad Mebazaa, the former parliament speaker, 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.

Anger over corruption and the lack of jobless 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.

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 intervene Saturday to try to stop looters from sacking the huge supermarket in the Ariana area, 30 kilometers (20 miles) 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.

Thousands of tourists were evacuated from the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.

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."

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 that Ben Ali has permanently vacated his position and 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.

The Arab League called on Saturday for a return to calm in Tunisia and urged the country to reach a "national consensus on ways to bring the country out of this crisis in a way that guarantees respect for the will of the Tunisian people".

Egypt also said on Saturday that it respected the choice of the Tunisian people.

"Egypt affirms its respect for the choices of the people in brotherly Tunisia as it trusts in the wisdom of its Tunisian brothers in fixing the situation and avoiding the collapse of Tunisia into chaos," an Egyptian Foreign Ministry statement said.