UK tourists flown to safety as turmoil grips riot-hit Tunisia

NEARLY 2,000 British holidaymakers have been flown out of Tunisia after rioting gripped the country.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has reportedly fled the country in the wake of the unrest, sparked by rising unemployment and allegations of corruption within the government.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he was assuming power in a televised address yesterday afternoon after at least 13 people were killed in clashes during the night.

Mr Ben Ali earlier declared a state of emergency after saying he would dismiss his government and call new legislative elections within six months after thousands of angry demonstrators had marched through Tunisia's capital, Tunis, to demand his resignation.

The rioting has led the Foreign Office to advise against all non-essential travel to the region with returning British passengers arriving back in the UK telling of crowds roaming the streets, smashing shop windows and looting.

Travel company Thomas Cook last night suspended its Tunisia programme and said it was bringing 1,800 holidaymakers home from the North African country.

Six flights brought the tourists home, with four going into Manchester and two to Gatwick in West Sussex.

Some passengers arriving at Gatwick Airport said they were relieved to be back, while others felt the tour operator had over-reacted.

Jim Thompson, 76, from East Kilbride, was 10 days into his break in Hammamet with his wife Eleanor, 71, when they were forced to abandon their holiday.

Mr Thompson, a retired technical author, said: "There were crowds running up the streets, smashing windows and looting. This morning I saw a big shop window broken and people were coming out with loads of shoes. It was horrible. I was panicked."

Cynthia Rigby, 55, from Liverpool, said she was confined to her hotel as chaos reigned outside on the streets.

She added: "I was scared I was going to get hurt and I felt sorry for the people. It is horrible out there."

But Richard Waudby, 52, from Kings Lynn, Norfolk, felt Thomas Cook had over-reacted.

He claimed that he had been left more than 1,000 out of pocket as a result of coming back just over a week into a seven-week holiday in Hammamet, and demanded to know why other British and foreign tour operators were still allowing customers to stay in Tunisia.

He added: "They didn't have any grievances with us. They want the tourists there."

Thomas Cook maintained that the move to fly holidaymakers home had been the right decision.

The firm added: "Although there has been no specific problems for our holidaymakers, their well-being is our primary concern so, as a precaution, we've taken the decision to bring them back to the UK as soon as we can, using our fleet of aircraft today."

In a statement, the Foreign Office said: "There have been demonstrations, some violent, in multiple locations across the country. The situation is unpredictable and there is the potential for violence to flare up, raising the risk of getting caught up in demonstrations.

"British nationals in Tunisia should monitor the news or stay in touch with your tour operator."

Thomas Cook said it had cancelled its flights to Tunisia which were due to leave tomorrow and was "reviewing the situation" for next Wednesday's flights.

Holiday companies First Choice and Thomson said they had cancelled all excursions due to take place in Tunisia today and had also abandoned the Thomson Airways' flights due to leave for Tunisia tomorrow. But the companies said they were only bringing home those customers who wished to leave. No decision had yet been taken on flights due to depart for Tunisia after tomorrow.

Sun and sea are big attraction

HUNDREDS of thousands of British tourists flock to Tunisia every year, lured by the prospect of sun, sea, sand and a flavour of Africa.

Less than a three-hour flight from the UK, the country offers a gateway to the Sahara desert in the south, while visitors to the north are drawn by more traditional low-cost "hot flop" holidays on the Mediterranean coastline.

Famed for its geographical extremes –from deep green forested mountains to salt lakes and sand dunes – it was the location of choice for much of George Lucas's Star Wars films and continues to attract film aficionados.

The region, which became part of the Ottoman empire in the 16th century, was a French protectorate before it became independent in 1956.

Today, both Arabic and French continue to be spoken by a population of about 10.4m.