Chaos on Tunisian streets as new leader takes charge

Looting, deadly prison riots and street chaos engulfed Tunisia the day after mass protests forced its strongman to flee.

Looting, deadly prison riots and street chaos engulfed Tunisia the 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.

Last night appeared calmer than the previous night, which saw looters empty shops and torch the capital's main train station as well as some shops.

As military helicopters patrolled overhead, residents in some neighbourhoods armed themselves with sticks and clubs, forming impromptu militias to protect their homes.

Yesterday also saw soldiers trade fire with assailants in front of the Interior Ministry, while thousands of European tourists scrambled to find flights home.

The death toll mounted. At least 42 people were killed yesterday 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 on 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.

Mr Ben Ali's long-time 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, 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 organise new elections.

Hours later, Mr Mebazaa was sworn in.

In his first televised address, the interim president 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 Mr Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia's ruling class for decades, would truly go to work with the opposition.

It was also unclear who would emerge as the country's top political leaders, since Mr Ben Ali utterly dominated politics, placing allies in power and sending opponents into jail or exile.

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