A surge of anger in the streets over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia's veteran leader from power on Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia confirmed the former Tunisian president and his family had arrived in the kingdom early on Saturday morning to stay for an unspecified period of time.
"The kingdom welcomed the arrival of the President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family," a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
A Saudi official told Reuters Ben Ali was in the port city of Jeddah.
"The kingdom states its complete support for the Tunisian people and hopes all Tunisians stand together to overcome the difficult stage in their history," SPA said.
It said the royal court decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the "exceptional circumstances" Tunisia is going through.
Saudi Arabia has a history of receiving deposed rulers and out-of-favour politicians.
He had been originally thought to have flown to France, Tunis's former colonial power, but French media quoted President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying that France had refused to give Ben Ali permission to enter the country.
Ghannouchi took over
The Tunisian army was called onto the streets on Friday, witnesses said, as residents in several parts of the Tunisian capital said groups were marauding through the town setting fire to buildings and attacking people and property.
In a dramatic climax to weeks of violent protests against his rule, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took over as caretaker president.
But it remains to be seen whether the protesters will accept Ghannouchi's interim leadership, or take to the streets again.
"Tomorrow we will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone. The street has spoken," said Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens of people killed in protests.
Occasional gunshots could be heard in the centre of Tunis as well as the sound of tear gas grenades being fired, while helicopters patrolled overhead and acrid smoke hung in the air. In working class suburbs, residents lined the streets, holding metal bars and knives to ward off looters.
Ghannouchi went on live television, via telephone, to promise everything was being done to restore order.
"I salute the fact that groups of young people have got together to defend their neighbourhoods but we can assure them we will reinforce their security," Ghannouchi said.
"We are at the service of the Tunisian people. Our country does not deserve everything that is happening. We must regain the trust of citizens in the government."
The prime minister told Tunisians he would steer the state until early elections. But it was not clear whether protesters would accept the technocrat Ghannouchi, prime minister since 1999, due to his close association with Ben Ali's rule.
"All I fear is that the Tunisian street, as long as it sees one person from this regime remain, will continue to complain. We need to create a government in which all parties are represented, to salvage the situation," said Paris-based analyst Ahmed al-Bawlaqi.
After days of violence that spread from provincial towns to Tunis, leaving dozens dead as security forces struggled to contain angry young demonstrators, the government declared a state of emergency on Friday and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Ghannouchi said he would meet representatives of political parties on Saturday to attempt to form a coalition government.
"Tomorrow will be a decisive day," Ghannouchi told a private Tunisian television station in a telephone interview. "I will meet representatives of political parties to form a government which I hope will meet expectations."
One of those invited to meet Ghannouchi for coalition talks was Najib Chebbi, an eloquent lawyer who has long been seen by Western diplomats as the most credible figure in the opposition.
"This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it's the succession," Chebbi told France's I-Tele TV. "It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose."
The violence and rapid turn of events sent shockwaves across the Arab world, where similar authoritarian rulers are deeply entrenched, but face mounting pressures from growing young populations and economic hardship.
"The fall of Ben Ali marks the first ever collapse of an autocratic regime in the face of a popular uprising in the Arab world," said U.S. political risk consultancy Stratfor.
"Leaders across the Arab world, and especially in North Africa, will now look to the Tunisian example with concerns about how the situation could be replicated in their own countries."
The unprecedented riots that have shaken Tunisia have been closely followed on regional satellite television channels and the Internet across the Middle East where high unemployment, bulging young populations, sky-rocketing inflation and a widening gap between rich and poor are all grave concerns.
"This could happen anywhere," said Imane, a restaurant owner in Egypt who did not want to give her full name. "The satellite and Internet images we can see nowadays mean people who would normally be subdued can now see others getting what they want."
"We are not used to something like this in this part of the world," said Kamal Mohsen, a 23-year-old Lebanese student. "It is bigger than a dream in a region where people keep saying 'what can we do'".
There was no evidence of new protests in Tunis after the announcement by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi that he would act as president until elections could be held. But occasional gunfire could still be heard. Police helicopters flew over the city after Ghannouchi, in an interview with a private television channel, promised to protect people from looters.
Western powers have long turned a blind eye to rulers in the region who provide a bulwark against Islamists. The United States led international calls for calm and for the people of Tunisia to be given a free choice of leaders.
"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," said U.S. President Barack Obama.
In Washington, Clinton said in a statement that Ben Ali had left Tunisia. "Young people especially need to have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives," she said after returning from a trip to the Middle East this week.
"Addressing these concerns will be challenging, but the United States stands ready to help," she added.
Western countries urged their citizens to avoid travel to the popular tourist destination due to the instability. Holiday operator Thomas Cook said it was evacuating almost 4,000 German, British and Irish tourists from Tunisia.
In power since 1987, Ben Ali had declared a state of emergency earlier on Friday and said protesters would be shot in an increasingly violent confrontation. He had also dismissed the government and called an early parliamentary election.
The latest unrest was sparked when police prevented an unemployed graduate from selling fruit without a licence and he set fire to himself, dying shortly afterwards of his burns.
As the violence escalated, police fired tear gas to disperse crowds in central Tunis demanding his immediate resignation. They were not satisfied with his promise on Thursday to step down, but only at the end of his current term in 2014.
ReutersLast Mod: 11 Mart 2014, 14:34