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Tunisian president flees country

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

TUNIS, Tunisia, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- The Tunisian prime minister announced Friday he was in control of the country after the president fled during escalating violence.

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced he was serving as the interim president in an address on state television Friday.

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UPI's Martin Walker discusses Tunisia on NPR

"Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the (presidential) duties," al-Jazeera quoted Ghannouchi as saying.

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali announced earlier Friday he declared a state of emergency and promised new elections as protests over food prices and high unemployment spiraled out of control.

The Tunisian president said on state television Thursday that he was setting up a special committee to examine public grievances.

Meanwhile, police used bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds in Tunis while security forces were overwhelmed in seaside resort areas popular with Western tourists.

Protesters ignored the state of emergency Friday and called for government reforms. Al-Jazeera reports that the airport in the capital was closed and surrounded by government forces. Air France, the main international carrier, canceled its flights to Tunisia.

CNN International reported Thursday that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb reportedly issued a statement in support of the anti-government protesters. Both the British and U.S. governments have issued travel warnings as the unrest escalates in Tunisia.

The U.S. State Department, through a spokesman, said Washington hoped "the (Tunisian) government will respond aggressively to the concerns of its citizens."

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