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New leader as Tunisia struggles with riots


UNREST: A soldier patrols in a tank in downtown Tunis. Photo: Reuters

UNREST: A soldier patrols in a tank in downtown Tunis. Photo: Reuters

UNREST: A soldier patrols in a tank in downtown Tunis. Photo: Reuters

Tunisia swore in a new interim president yesterday and grappled with looting, deadly prison riots and chaos in the streets. Looters emptied shops and torched the capital's main railway station, and soldiers traded fire with attackers in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis.

At least 42 people were killed yesterday in a prison fire in a resort town and the director of another prison let 1,000 inmates flee after a deadly rebellion.

The interim president -- Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament -- ordered the creation of a unity government that could include the opposition, which had been frozen out and ignored under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23 years of autocratic rule.

Mr Ben Ali abruptly fled the country on Friday for Saudi Arabia following a month of street protests over corruption, a lack of jobs and clampdowns on civil liberties.

Yet while the protests were mostly peaceful, the first day after his departure was chaotic -- and deadly.

The leadership changes came at a dizzying speed. After Mr Ben Ali left, his longtime ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Mr Ben Ali could return.

But yesterday, Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the president's departure permanent and gave lawmaker Mr Mebazaa 60 days in which to organise new elections.

Hours later, Mr Mebazaa was sworn in.

In his first televised address, he said he asked the prime minister to form a "national unity government in the country's best interests" in which all political parties will be consulted "without exception nor exclusion". The move was one of reconciliation, but it was not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia's ruling class for decades, would go to invite the opposition into government.

It was also unclear who would emerge as the top political leaders in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia: The autocratic leader had utterly dominated politics for decades, placing his allies in power and sending opponents to jail or into exile.

On the streets, the unrest was frightening. A fire at a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, said coroner Tarek Mghirbi. The cause of the fire was not clear.

In Mahdia, further down the coast, there was a rebellion inside a prison holding an estimated 1,000 prisoners, with inmates setting fire to their mattresses.

Soldiers opened fire and five inmates were killed, a top local official said. The director of the prison let the inmates flee to avoid further bloodshed, the official said, asking not to be identified because of security concerns.

Security forces and unidentified assailants had a shootout yesterday in front of the Interior Ministry that left two bodies on the ground. It was not clear whether they were dead or who they are.

Sporadic gunfire echoed around the capital and black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it.

A photographer saw soldiers fire warning shots and try to stop looters from sacking the supermarket in Ariana, north of the capital, to no avail. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

Tunisian airspace re-opened but some flights were cancelled and others left with delays.

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

Saudi King Abdullah's palace confirmed yesterday that the ousted president and some family members had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia".

Mr Ben Ali won frequent praise from abroad for presiding over reforms to make the economy more competitive and attract business. Growth last year was at 3.1per cent. Unemployment was officially 14 per cent but believed to be far higher among the young. Despair among graduates was palpable.

The riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused generalised anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.

Sunday Independent