Tunis (Tunisia), Jan 15 (Agencies): Tunisia's President has left power for good, the President of the country's Constitutional Court said on Saturday declaring that the leader of the lower house of parliament will assume power until elections are held in two months.

It was the second time power has changed hands in this North African country in less than 24 hours.

Massive street protests over corruption and unemployment forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country Friday night after 23 years of iron-fisted rule.

Saudi King Abdullah's palace confirmed early Saturday that the ousted President and his family had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia."

When Ben Ali left, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return.

But Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher said on Saturday that Ben Ali has permanently vacated his position and lawmaker Fouad Mebazaa has up to 60 days to organize new elections.

Ben Ali's ouster was the key demand of a month of protests that have swept the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins.

While the protests were mostly peaceful, after Ben Ali's departure rioters burned the main train station in the capital of Tunis and looted shops.

An Associated Press photographer saw soldiers intervening today to try to stop looters from sacking a huge supermarket in the Ariana area, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of the capital. Shops near the main bazaar were also looted.

A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfire crackled anew today morning.

Overnight, public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital's outskirts, recounting attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.

Ghannouchi, who held power for less than 24 hours told TV stations overnight that he had ordered the army and other security forces to intervene immediately in those neighborhoods.

There has been no official announcement about Ben Ali's whereabouts in Saudi Arabia, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 500 kilometers south of Jeddah. The source said Ben Ali had been taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

 

Embarrassed France abandons its Tunisian ally

Until the very last days of his often brutal reign, France stood by Tunisia's authoritarian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and only finally abandoned him once his downfall was inevitable.

Despite concerns about his human rights record and refusal to open up the political process, French leaders had praised Tunisia's economic development and seen his rule as a bulwark against Islamist extremism.

But when his people took to the streets to oust him and the time came for Ben Ali to take the path of exile he found France's airports closed to him, as an embarrassed Paris belatedly declared him persona non grata.

"We don't want him to come," a government official said on late Friday, arguing that granting Ben Ali exile in Tunisia's former colonial power would upset the hundreds of thousands of French residents of Tunisian origin.