After 23 years in power, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has stepped down, in response to widespread rioting in the nation’s capital of Tunis. BBC sources say that he has fled to the Mediterranean island of Malta and that Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, will be taking over as interim president.  Troops have surrounded the national airport, and Tunisia’s airspace has been closed.

This step comes after an escalating series of events in the North African country. Peaceful demonstrations in the capital grew into violent riots that then turned into running gun battles once the police become involved.  Ben Ali declared a state of emergency, which imposed a curfew, and forbade people to congregate into groups greater than three, all to no effect. He also promised a number of reforms, including allowing his term to expire, elections in the next six months, a freer press, and a reduction of prices for consumer staples.

The protests in Tunisian have been going on since December. They began after a 26-year-old fruit and vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest after police confiscated his produce for selling without a permit. Sixty-six people are reported dead from the violence; thirteen people were killed in the riots on Thursday alone.

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