Tunisians drive president from power

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family arrive in Saudi Arabia a day after the former Tunisian president stepped down following weeks of riots in the North African country.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and family are welcomed in Saudi Arabia

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning, a day after the former Tunisian president stepped down following weeks of riots in the North African country.

"The kingdom welcomed the arrival of the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his wife," Reuters reported, citing a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency website. 

On Friday, Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he is assuming power after the president stepped down.

At least 23 people have been killed in the riots, according to the government, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three times that

"I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the leadership of the country at this difficult time to help return security," Ghannouchi said on state television on Friday.

"I promise that when I take this responsibility to respect the Constitution and work on reform of economic and social issues with care and to consult with all the sides."

The role of the web

As with other recent popular revolts, the internet played a significant role in Tunisia, helping drive the protest movement forward. That's despite the government's attempt to censor the web.

The organization Reporters without Borders lists the Tunisian state as one of its 15 "enemies of the internet," but activists managed to break through the firewalls and sent a steady flow of messages on Twitter and Facebook about where to gather and when. They uploaded video and live eye-witness reports from the protests on social media sites.

Ubiquitous cellphone cameras also captured images, telling the story to the world. Tunisia leads North Africa and the Arab world in internet access, and despite heavy government monitoring, it is that access that enabled the web to be a valuable tool of the protest movement.

The whereabouts of Ben Ali, 74, were not known until early Saturday, and the details about his removal from power were unclear.

Ghannouchi did not mention a coup or the army being in charge, saying only that he was taking over while the president is "temporarily indisposed."

Ben Ali could be in Montreal: reports

Early, unconfirmed news reports, citing unidentified government sources, said Ben Ali had left the country, and there was speculation that he was headed to Paris or Montreal, where his son-in-law has a home.

However, French media reported, citing government sources, that President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to give Ben Ali permission to enter France.

In Washington, D.C., U.S. President Barack Obama said he applauded the courage and dignity of protesting Tunisians and urged all parties to keep calm and avoid violence.

In massive demonstrations earlier in the day in the capital Tunis, thousands of protesters clashed repeatedly with police as they filled the streets to demand the resignation of Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia for 23 years. 

The demonstrators chanted "Ben Ali, out!" and "Ben Ali, assassin!"

Ali has presided over a repressive regime that many in the country see as corrupt and serving only the interests of a small elite ruling class. He has relied heavily on the police to quash opposition.

Frustration with Ali's regime has been exacerbated recently by rising food and fuel prices and high unemployment.

Thomas Cook transports tourists out

On Friday, police firing tear gas clashed with demonstrators, some of whom climbed the wall of the Interior Ministry, a symbol of the oppressive regime. Some shots were reported to have been fired.

Clouds of tear gas and black smoke hung over the city's whitewashed buildings, and tour operators hurriedly evacuated thousands of tourists. Tunisian air space was closed.

Tour operator Thomas Cook said it was transporting 3,800 British, Irish and German vacationers from Tunisia as a precaution. Tourism is one of the nation's key industries.

In response to the riots, Ben Ali had earlier on Friday dissolved the government and promised to hold new legislative elections within six months. On Thursday night, he went on television to promise lower food prices and more freedoms for Tunisians, and to say he would not run for re-election in 2014.

Tunisians have been rioting for weeks to protest high unemployment and what they viewed as a corrupt regime.

Ben Ali claimed power in 1987 in a bloodless coup that saw the ouster of Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia.

With files from The Associated Press