Prime Minister Claims Power in Tunisia as President Flees

Protestors hold a banner reading "Ben Ali get out", calling for the resignation of Tunisia

From David D. Kirkpatrick, the New York Times:  President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has left the country amid growing chaos in the streets, French diplomats say, and the prime minister went on state television Friday night to say he is in charge.

A French Foreign Ministry official said authorities did not know where the president had gone, and representatives of the president were not immediately available to confirm the report.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the country’s airspace had been closed.

In his speech to the country, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said that “as the president of the republic is unable to exercise his functions for the time being, I have assumed, starting now, the powers of the president. …”

Mr. Ben Ali had dismissed his cabinet in the afternoon and called for new legislative elections to be held in six months.

That announcement followed an extraordinary back-and-forth between the government and protestors. After the president tried to placate the protestors Thursday with promises of more freedom, including a right to demonstrate, tens of thousands rushed into the streets of downtown Tunis Friday to take advantage of his pledge by calling for his ouster

But when the protestors led a funeral procession for a recently killed protestor through the streets, the police finally moved to disperse the crowds, brutally beating demonstrators and raining tear gas on Tunis’s Bourguiba Boulevard. 

From Reuters:  French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office said on Friday it had no information on a report that Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had arrived in Paris.

Al-Jazeera television reported earlier that he had arrived in the French capital. (photo: AP)

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