Special Reports

Tunisian President Ben Ali flees country as thousands protest

TUNIS, Tunisia — The president of of Tunisia fled the country Friday after tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital to demand his resignation.

President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali's destination was unknown, but sources told the French publication Jeune Afrique that the president's personal plane had overflown Malta in the Mediterranean, and the French newspaper Le Monde reported that he was expected to seek asylum in France.

Jeune Afrique reported that the country's prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, had taken power temporarily and that the army had declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew.

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital of Tunisia to demand Ben Ali's resignation even after he gave a major speech the night before promising concessions to a protest movement driven by anger over economic troubles and a lack of political freedoms.

"We'll only leave if Ben Ali leaves," they chanted, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Resign, Ben Ali!"

The protests were the latest in a series that began a month ago after a college-educated street vendor burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects.

The mounting protests quickly evolved from demands for more jobs to demands for political reforms, focusing mainly on the perceived corruption of the government and the self-enrichment of the ruling family.

Facebook and Twitter were used extensively to organizae the protests, which were fed by WikiLeaks' publication of secret U.S. State Department cables in which the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, Robert F. Godec, was hiohgly critical of Ben Ali and his family. In one, he wrote that "President Ben Ali's extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption."

"Ben Ali's wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family -- the Trabelsis -- provoke the greatest ire from Tunisians," the ambassador wrote in the June 23, 2008, cable, which WikiLeaks published Dec. 7. "Along with the numerous allegations of Trabelsi corruption are often barbs about their lack of education, low social status, and conspicuous consumption."

In another cable, written a year later, Godec bemoaned the Ben Ali regime. "By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally," he said. "But it is not." He then described what he said was a "troubled" nation.

"President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor," Godec wrote on July 17, 2009, in a cable WikiLeaks published Dec. 7. "Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. Extremism poses a continuing threat. Compounding the problems, the GOT (government of Tunisia) brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police."

Ten days later the ambassador wrote another cable, this one describing a lavish dinner at the beachfront home of Ben Ali's daughter and son-in-law, which Goldec called "impressive." He said the couples' pet tiger added "to the impression of 'over the top.'

"The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians," the ambssasdor wrote. "The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing."

On Friday, the Tunisians gathered near the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, which had taken part in a weeks-long crackdown against demonstrators, rioters and activists. Al-Arabiya, a pan-Arab television network, reported that protesters were trying to storm the ministerial building as well as the Central Bank. Tunisian police fired tear gas on protesters when they started to climb atop the roof of the Interior Ministry, the Associated Press reported.

Human rights groups say at least 66 people have been killed since the protests began, including eight Thursday night and Friday morning.

There were reports of continuing violence, including word that police were attacking demonstrators in Tunisia's second-largest city, Sfax, and that a math teacher had been shot by security forces. Witnesses also said protesters attacked a police station in the Tunis suburb of Marsa.

Some travel agencies began evacuating foreign tourists stranded in Tunisia. Thomas Cook said it was taking about 1,800 British and Irish tourists and 2,000 Germans out of the country, according to Reuters news agency.

In a speech delivered Thursday in the local Tunisian dialect instead of classical Arabic, Ben Ali promised to stand down before 2014 elections, lower food prices and lift restrictions on civil and political liberties that have gained his country a reputation as one of the most repressive in North Africa.

Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane said in a television interview that Ben Ali would be willing to allow new legislative elections before 2014.

Despite the cautious praise of some opposition figures, Tunisian activists and protesters inside and outside the country appeared unmoved by the concessions.

On social media websites including Facebook and Twitter, they have dubbed themselves the "Jasmine Revolution," in reference to the fragrant flower that grows ubiquitously in the Mediterranean nation, and vowed to continue to hold protests until Ben Ali leaves office. The country's main union announced a general strike for Friday in the capital and other regions.

Ben Ali for weeks had labeled the protesters vandals and common criminals, but the crowd in downtown Tunis on Friday included doctors, lawyers and businessmen who said they were fed up with the festering corruption under Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

"Bread and water! No Ben Ali," they chanted before a force of uniformed security officials.

(This report contains material from the Los Angeles Times.)

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