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Tourists flee Tunisia after rioters oust hated leader

More than 1,800 British and Irish holidaymakers were flown out of Tunisia last night as the African country descended into chaos.

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled after sacking his government |and declaring a state of emergency, as a month of violent protests that escalated to pitched street battles appeared to have ended his iron-fisted 23-year rule.

A spokesman for Thomas Cook said that 1,800 British and Irish holidaymakers would be flown out following Foreign Office advice against |non-essential travel. Tour operators Thomson and First Choice said they were monitoring the situation.

As the military shut down Tunisian airspace and reports suggested that Mr Ben Ali (74) had flown out of the capital, Tunis, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi addressed the nation, saying he had taken over and vowed to restore stability after the biggest protests the government had faced in decades.

There were conflicting reports of Mr Ben Ali's whereabouts last night, with Reuters reporting that French police had been told to expect him to land at an airport near Paris.

Thousands of people protesting against unemployment, corruption and political repression had filled |the streets of Tunis and crowded |on rooftops, shouting “Ben Ali, |assassin!” and “Ben Ali, out!”.

Police fired tear gas at groups of stone-throwing youths who tried to scale the interior ministry, and witnesses reported hearing gunshots. British tourists were urged to leave the country.

Official news agency TAP had |reported earlier that parliamentary elections would be held within six months, while state television announced emergency rule, which |included an overnight curfew and threats of force against anyone |violating the restrictions.

Dozens of people have been killed in the protests, which began in |December after Mohamed Bouazizi (26) set himself ablaze in the town of Sidi Bouzid. A university graduate forced to sell vegetables on the street because of crippling unemployment, Bouazizi made his final desperate protest after police confiscated his food cart.

News of Bouazizi's self-immolation spread through Twitter and Facebook, and by the time he died of his burns nearly three weeks later, protests had mushroomed throughout the North African nation.

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