Holiday Britons evacuated from Tunisia

Nearly 2,000 British holidaymakers were being evacuated from Tunisia today after rioting gripped the country.

Some passengers arriving back in the UK said they witnessed distressing scenes with crowds roaming the streets, smashing shop windows and looting.

Travel company Thomas Cook suspended its Tunisia programme and said it was evacuating 1,800 holidaymakers from the North African country.

Tunisia has been rocked by unrest sparked by anger at unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt.

Today Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he was assuming power after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali reportedly fled the country.

The president earlier declared a state of emergency after saying he would dismiss his government and call new legislative elections within six months.

Thousands of angry demonstrators had marched through Tunisia's capital, Tunis, to demand his resignation.

Six flights brought the tourists home, with four coming into Manchester and two to Gatwick in West Sussex.

Some passengers arriving at Gatwick Airport said they were relieved to be back, while others felt the tour operator had over-reacted.

Jim Thompson, 76, from East Kilbride, was 10 days into his break in Hammamet with his wife Eleanor, 71, when they were forced to abandon their holiday.

Mr Thompson, a retired technical author, said: "There were crowds running up the streets, smashing windows and looting.

"This morning I saw a big shop window broken and people were coming out with loads of shoes.

"It was horrible. I was panicked."

Cynthia Rigby, 55, from Liverpool, said she was confined to her hotel as chaos reigned outside on the streets.

She said: "I was scared I was going to get hurt and I felt sorry for the people.

"It is horrible out there."

But Richard Waudby, 52, from Kings Lynn, Norfolk, felt Thomas Cook had over-reacted.

He said he has been left more than £1,000 out of pocket as a result of coming back just over a week into a seven-week holiday in Hammamet and demanded to know why other British and foreign tour operators were still allowing customers to stay in Tunisia.

He said: "They didn't have any grievances with us. They want the tourists there."

Thomas Cook said: "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 today."

The Foreign Office (FO) has advised against all but essential travel to Tunisia. It said in a statement: "There have been demonstrations, some violent, in multiple locations across the country.

"The situation is unpredictable and there is the potential for violence to flare up, raising the risk of getting caught up in demonstrations.

"British nationals in Tunisia should monitor the news or stay in touch with your tour operator."

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "We are not yet in a position where we are recommending people leaving as an emergency if you like, here and now."

Thomas Cook said it had cancelled its flights to Tunisia due to leave on Sunday and was "reviewing the situation" for flights planned for next Wednesday.

Holiday companies First Choice and Thomson said they had cancelled all excursions due to take place in Tunisia today and had also cancelled the Thomson Airways' flights due to leave for Tunisia on Sunday.

But the companies said they were only bringing home those customers who wished to leave and no decision had yet been taken on flights due to depart for Tunisia after Sunday.

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said: "There have been no reports of British nationals being affected by the unrest and foreigners are unlikely to be targeted. However, tourists should remain cautious and vigilant and continue to follow the advice of their tour operator, local authorities and the FO."

Abta went on: "We estimate around 5,000 British tourists are currently in the country in a number of different resorts. These include Sousse, Portel Kantoui, Hammamet, Djerba, Skanes and Mahdia."

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