Thousands of tourists stranded as Tunisia violence escalates

Thousands of tourists stranded as Tunisia violence escalates

Thousands of European holidaymakers have been trapped in Tunisia as the North Africa republic teeters on the brink of civil war.

Security has been stepped up in centre of the capital, Tunis, a day after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by street protests.

Hundreds of troops are patrolling Tunis and a state of emergency is in force. Interim leader Mohammed Ghannouchi has said his priority is restoring order.

Unconfirmed reports say Mr Ben Ali and his family have left Tunisia, and that he is looking for a place of asylum.

French media say President Nicolas Sarkozy has rejected a request for his plane to land in France.

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Ten of thousands of tourist were left stranded after days of violence left the country in lockdown. Thomas Cook brought 1,800 British tourists home on Friday in six evacuation flights.

But as many as 3,000 Britons were left behind as a state of emergency was declared, the country’s airspace was closed down and the army took control of the airport.

Crowds of protesters took to the streets of the capital Tunis on Friday evening, demanding the resignation of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled before the flights were grounded.

Protestors clashed with police who beat them with sticks and kicked them on the ground.

Live rounds and tear gas were also fired at the demonstrators in what is being billed as the first WikiLeaks revolution because it was sparked by internet revelations about corruption in the president’s regime.

The bloodshed also spread to the country’s Mediterranean resorts, popular with Europeans seeking winter sun. In Hammamet, two protesters were said to have been shot dead and the police station set ablaze.

Manny Fontenla-Novoa, Group CEO for Thomas Cook Group plc, said: ”At times like this, the benefits of booking a package holiday come into their own. As soon as we were made aware of the FCO changing its travel advice last night, we worked around the clock to put in place our rescue programme and we are happy to confirm the speedy return of all six of our rescue flights, which will have landed back safely in the UK by the end of today.

“With all the aircraft full, around 1,500 Thomas Cook British holidaymakers will have returned from Tunisia today.  One further flight is scheduled to return to Monastir Airport tomorrow to bring back our remaining holidaymakers, who are in the safe hands of our experienced teams in resort.”