Tunisia: Deposed leader said to be 'gravely ill' after stroke

Former tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was yesterday said to be gravely ill in Saudi Arabia, where he fled after being deposed.

According to the accounts, Ben Ali is receiving treatment at a hospital in Jeddah where members of the Kingdom's royal family receive treatment. The French journalist Nicolas Beau, who has extensively covered events in Tunisia, claimed in his blog that Ben Ali lapsed into a coma after suffering a stroke and was admitted to the hospital under a false name on Tuesday. The journalist also claimed that Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, was "no longer at his side".

Another website, JSSnews, also stated that the former strongman was ill, but that this was due to a heart attack, and the Tunisian government was aware of the situation.

A relation of Mrs Trabelsi, said yesterday that he had heard the former president has been unwell for a while, and his condition had suddenly deteriorated. The relation, who now lives outside Tunisia, added: "He is naturally depressed and worried about what may happen to his country. This has been bad for his health and it is not surprising that this [the illness] could have affected him. As far as I know Leila is still with him."

Ben Ali, who was in power for 23 years before being overthrown by upheavals which spread to much of the rest of the Arab world and Iran, has experienced health problems over the past few years and has received treatment in the past in France.

Meanwhile, France's foreign minister is facing fresh calls to resign, amid allegations of a property deal between her parents and a close associate of the deposed president.

Michele Alliot-Marie had already faced criticism for flying on the private jet of the businessman Aziz Miled after the start of mass protests that eventually deposed Ben Ali.

Pressure for her to step down intensified when her ministry admitted yesterday that she had spoken to Ben Ali during her holiday.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the opposition Socialists' parliamentary group, said: "She has not stopped lying to the French people." If the minister and her husband, Patrick Ollier, a junior minister who was also on the Tun-isia trip, "had a sense of the state and the interests of France, they would explain all the accusations against them, and resign", he added.