London, Jan 15 (Agencies): Europe's biggest tour operators have begun evacuating nearly 6,000 holidaymakers from Tunisia as political unrest toppled the troubled North African country's President.

Thomas Cook said around 2,000 German holidaymakers were being repatriated on Friday due to the violence, while a further 1,800 from Britain and Ireland were being flown home and 540 were returning to Belgium.

TUI Travel, which operates Thomson and First Choice, said it was bringing more than 1,500 customers back to Britain from Tunisia, where tourism plays a key role in the economy.

Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country yesterday and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he had taken over after weeks of upheaval climaxed in bloody street protests.

Thomas Cook said three flights from the northeastern resort of Monastir had landed in Britain and it was pressing ahead with three more despite officials in Tunisia saying that the country's airspace had closed.

Two of the flights were to London Gatwick Airport and four to Manchester in northwest England.
Several planes had also taken German holidaymakers home to their country.

"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," a spokeswoman said.

Thomas Cook cancelled its next departures from Britain to Tunisia, due out on Sunday, and it was reviewing the situation for flights on Wednesday.

TUI said a "rescue flight" to bring 100 passengers home had left Monastir for Manchester in northwest England and another 1,237 tourists would be brought home "as soon as possible".

"We will continue to take our advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and work closely with them," said spokeswoman Louise Evans.

France and Britain both warned against travelling to Tunisia.