Obama condemns violence used against Tunisian protesters

After declaring state of emergency and dismissing government, Tunisian president flees to Saudi Arabia; King Abdullah: "Wish for peace and security to the people of Tunisia."

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama condemned the violence used against protesters in Tunisia Friday, urging the sides to remain calm and the government to move toward an open and democratic system.
Obama called on Tunisian authorities “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”
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He said the US “stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.”
“I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” he said. “I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”
After 23 years of iron-fisted rule, the president of Tunisia was driven from power Friday by violent protests over soaring unemployment and corruption. Virtually unprecedented in modern Arab history, the populist uprising sent an ominous message to authoritarian governments that dominate the region.
The office of Saudi King Abdullah confirmed early Saturday that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, after several hours of mystery over his whereabouts. "As a result of the Saudi kingdom's respect for the exceptional circumstances the Tunisian people are going through, and with its wish for peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia, we have welcomed" him, the statement said.
Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's ouster faced uncertainly, however, about what's next for the North African nation. The country was under the caretaker leadership of the prime minister who took control, the role of the army in the transition was unknown, and it was uncertain whether Ben Ali's departure would be enough to restore calm.
The ouster followed the country's largest protests in generations and weeks of escalating unrest, sparked by one man's suicide and fueled by social media, cell phones and young people who have seen relatively little benefit from Tunisia's recent economic growth. Thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life rejected Ben Ali's promises of change and mobbed Tunis, the capital, to demand that he leave.
The government said at least 23 people have been killed in the riots, but opposition members put the death toll at more than three times that.
On Friday, police repeatedly clashed with protesters, some of whom climbed onto the entrance roof of the dreaded Interior Ministry, widely believed for years to be a place where the regime's opponents were tortured.
With clouds of tear gas and black smoke drifting over the city's whitewashed buildings, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi went on state television to announce that he was assuming power in this North African nation known mostly for its wide sandy beaches and ancient ruins.
"I take over the responsibilities temporarily of the leadership of the country at this difficult time to help restore security," Ghannouchi said in a solemn statement on state television. "I promise ... to respect the constitution, to work on reforming economic and social issues with care and to consult with all sides."
The prime minister, a longtime ally of the president, suggested that Ben Ali had willingly handed over control, but the exact circumstances were unclear.
In a string of last-ditch efforts to tamp down the unrest, Ben Ali dissolved the government and promised legislative elections within six months — a pledge that appeared to open at least the possibility of a new government. Before his removal of power was announced, he declared a state of emergency, including a curfew that was in effect Friday night and was to be lifted at 7 a.m. Saturday.
Isolated bursts of gunfire broke a general quiet in the evening. But overnight, in a sign that Ben Ali's departure hadn't fully restored calm, plainclothes police were seen hustling some people off the streets of Tunis: One was clubbed, another was dragged on the ground.