Share this article

print logo

New Tunisian leader vows unity amid chaos

Looting, deadly prison riots and street chaos engulfed Tunisia on Saturday, a day after mass protests forced its strongman to flee. A new interim president was sworn in, promising to create a unity government that could include the long-ignored opposition.

It was the second change of power in this North African nation in less than 24 hours.

Amid the political instability, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station in Tunis, soldiers traded fire with assailants in front of the Interior Ministry, and thousands of European tourists sought a plane flight home.

The death toll mounted. At least 42 people were killed Saturday in a prison fire in one resort town, and the director of another prison in another tourist haven let 1,000 inmates flee after soldiers shot five dead amid a rebellion. Those deaths came on top of scores of others after a month of protests in which police often fired upon demonstrators.

After 23 years of autocratic rule, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abruptly fled the country Friday for Saudi Arabia following mass street protests over corruption, a lack of jobs and clampdowns on civil liberties.

The leadership changes then came at a dizzying speed.

Ben Ali's longtime ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return. But on Saturday, the head of the Constitutional Council declared the president's departure permanent and gave Fouad Mebazaa, leader of the lower house of parliament, 60 days to organize new elections.

Hours later, Mebazaa was sworn in.

In his first televised address, the interim president asked the premier to form a "national unity government in the country's best interests."

The move was one of reconciliation, but it was not clear how far Mebazaa, 77, who has been part of Tunisia's ruling class for decades, would truly go to work with the opposition.

On the streets, the unrest was frightening.

A fire Saturday at a prison in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told the Associated Press.

In Mahdia, further down the coast, inmates set fire to their mattresses in protest. Soldiers opened fire, killing five inmates, a top local official said. The director of the prison then let about 1,000 other inmates flee the prison to avoid further bloodshed, the official said.

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

"It was quite scary, but I was never in fear for my life," said Mary Grist, a retiree who arrived Saturday at Britain's Manchester Airport from Tunisia.

Thousands of messages congratulating the Tunisian people flooded the Internet on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Hundreds demonstrated Saturday afternoon in Brussels, demanding that Ben Ali be brought to justice. One banner read "Ben Ali has to pay for his crimes."

Ben Ali's downfall sent a warning to other autocratic leaders across the Arab world, especially because he did not seem especially vulnerable until the very end and managed his country of 10 million better than many other Middle Eastern nations.

There are no comments - be the first to comment