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Friday, January 14, 2011

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has stepped down after 23 years in power as protests over economic issues snowballed into rallies against him.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken over as interim president, and a state of emergency has been declared.

Mr Ben Ali left Tunisia with his family, and has since arrived in Saudi Arabia, officials said.

Earlier, French media said President Nicolas Sarkozy had rejected a request for his plane to land in France.

Dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on demonstrations over unemployment, food price rises and corruption.

A Saudi palace statement said Mr Ben Ali arrived in the country early on Saturday, according to the official SPA news agency.

"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 El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom," the statement said.

The protests started after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.

Demonstrations came to a head on Friday as thousands of people gathered outside the interior ministry, a symbol of the regime, and many climbed onto its roof. Police responded with volleys of tear-gas grenades.

President Ben Ali, who had already promised to step down in 2014, dissolved his government and the country's parliament, and declared a state of emergency.

Then, in a televised address on Friday afternoon, the prime minister announced that he would be taking over from President Ben Ali.

Mr Ghannouchi, 69, a former finance minister who has been prime minister since 1999, promised to "respect the law and to carry out the political, economic and social reforms that have been announced".

PM Mohammed Ghannouchi

“Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi: "I assume responsibilities of the president"”

Witnesses say soldiers have begun taking down portraits of Mr Ben Ali - an ubiquitous sign of his authoritarian rule - from billboards and on the walls of public buildings around the country.

tun002.jpg (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Rioters burn a policeman's hat during clashes with the police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency on Friday and warned that protesters would be shot in an increasingly frantic effort to quell the worst unrest in his two decades in power. Then, he fled the country.

More on the fast-moving changes in Tunisia today, and protests in which tens of thousands called for change, at this Boing Boing post. More photos follow, below. But this one, taken after Ben Ali flew out of the country, may really sum it up best.

tun003.jpg Rioters throw stones during clashes with riot police in Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

tun004.jpg Rioters carry a woman crying during clashes with the police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemr)

tun005.jpg A Tunisian soldier and rioters look at a rioter who lost consciousness after tear gas was released during clashes with the police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

tun001.jpg An unidentified fan in the audience holds a placard saying "Long live Tunisia, Long live Kasserine and Long live liberty" during the handball World Championship Group A match between France and Tunisia in Kristianstad January 14, 2011. Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali stepped aside on Friday after failing to quell the worst anti-government unrest in his two decades in power. (Reuters)

tun006.jpg A rioter throws a tear gas canister, from the riot police, towards the riot police during clashes in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

tun007.jpg Rioters carry rocks during clashes with riot police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

tun008.jpg Rioters clash with riot police in downtown of the capital Tunis January 14, 2011. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

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