Tunis - AP - Jan. 15, 2010
Unrest engulfed the Tunisian capital of Tunis on Jan. 15, 2010 Photo by AP
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Random acts of violence, shootings and deadly prison riots engulfed Tunisia yesterday, after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, putting an end to 23 years of autocratic rule.

The deposed president has reportedly made his way to Saudi Arabia following widespread civil protests over corruption, unemployment and a clampdown on civil liberties.

Fouad Mebazza, the parliament speaker, was sworn in as interim president. He asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a coalition government. Constitutional authorities said a presidential election would be held within 60 days.

International recognition of the new state of political affairs in Tunisia was quick in coming from the African Union, France and the Arab League, based in Egypt.

It remains unclear who was behind the acts of shooting in the capital of Tunis, though it is suspected Ben Ali supporters were involved. Soldiers and tanks were stationed in the center of Tunis to try to restore order in the aftermath of a night of looting that broke out when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of violent anti-government protests that claimed dozens of lives.

Impromptu militias have sprouted up in suburban neighborhoods, mostly to guard against looters. Residents armed with clubs and knives blocked access to neighborhoods and only allowed locals to pass through.

Also yesterday, dozens of inmates were killed when they broke out of Mahdia prison. The prison at Monastir, south of the capital, was on fire after a separate escape attempt.

Forty-two people died in the Monastir riot, the official news agency said.

Al Jazeera television reported that Ben Ali's head of presidential security had been arrested.

Protesters have threatened to continue their campaign unless they see genuine political and economic change.

"We will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone. The street has spoken," said Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens killed in the protests.

The acting president told state television he had asked the prime minister to form a coalition government.

"I have called on Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a new government of national unity," he said.

After taking the oath, he said, "All Tunisians without exception and exclusion must be associated in the political process."

An opposition leader who held talks with the prime minister yesterday said further negotiations would be held today.

"We discussed the idea of a coalition government and the prime minister accepted our request to have a coalition government," Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Union of Freedom and Labor party, told news agencies.

The ousting of Tunisia's president after widespread protests could embolden Arab opposition movements and ordinary people to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

"What is striking about Tunisia is how fast it happened - although there were decades of discontent behind it. That has to worry governments elsewhere," Gala Riani, a Middle East Analyst with IHS Global Insight, said.

Yesterday, Egypt announced that it respected the choice of the Tunisian people. The Arab League called for calm and unity.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who refused to allow Ben Ali to enter the country, called for free elections as soon as possible and said he had taken steps to block suspicious movements of Tunisian assets in France.

"France is prepared to meet any request for help to ensure the democratic process takes place in indisputable fashion," his office said in a statement after he met with government ministers.

In the past four weeks, dozens of people have died in civil protests that swept the country. Security forces in many cases used live ammunition against the protesters.

The African Union has condemned what it called "excessive use of force against the demonstrators."

Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, conceded power on Friday after the unrest culminated in a giant rally against him in Tunis.

"Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country... the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom," according to a statement issued by the Saudi palace.