TUNIS, Tunisia, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced Friday he would serve as interim president until the next election.
Ghannouchi said President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali "cannot fulfill his duties," CNN reported. Tunisian news media say Ben Ali has left Tunisia as riots over high unemployment and food prices have grown and spread.
"I pledge to respect the constitution and will pay specific attention to and will carry out the political, economic and social reforms that been announced this week and to consult with all national parties of all political affiliations and all populations for the best of the nation," the prime minister said.
Earlier Friday, Ben Ali declared a state of emergency as protesters and police clashed in Tunis. By Friday evening, the capital was quiet with the airport closed and locked down, CNN said.
Thousands of protesters marched in the center of Tunis, calling on Ben Ali to leave office at once. Witnesses told the BBC 6,000 to 7,000 people gathered in front of the Interior Ministry building.
Trade unions called for a general strike Friday, the BBC reported. The government ordered schools closed and transit systems idled.
Ben Ali addressed the country Thursday on government television, saying he was setting up a committee to study popular grievances, Voice of America reported. Ali said the committee of independent national figures would look at elections, the media, universities and other issues in the run-up to 2014 parliamentary elections.
Human rights organizations said more than 60 people have died in recent weeks across the country as security forces cracked down on protests over corruption, unemployment and high food prices.
Knowledge about first family's wealth -- partially revealed in a cable from the U.S. ambassador and made public by WikiLeaks -- helped fuel the uprising by Tunisians who blame corruption among the wealthy for the country's unemployment, The New York Times said.
In the coastal resort community of Hammamet -- where Ben Ali and his extended family have beachfront mansions -- people filled the streets and ransacked the mansion of a presidential relative, the Times reported.
Some protesters told the Times Ben Ali was a good man who was brought down by the greed of his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family.