Former Tunisian president in Saudi Arabia: agency

RIYADH Fri Jan 14, 2011 8:38pm EST

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia confirmed the former Tunisian president and his family had arrived in the kingdom early on Saturday morning to stay for an unspecified period of time.

"The kingdom welcomed the arrival of the President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family," a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

A Saudi official told Reuters Ben Ali was in the port city of Jeddah.

A surge of popular protests over police repression and poverty swept Tunisia's veteran leader from power on Friday, sending a chill through unpopular authoritarian governments across the Arab world.

"The kingdom states its complete support for the Tunisian people and hopes all Tunisians stand together to overcome the difficult stage in their history," SPA said.

It said the royal court decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the "exceptional circumstances" Tunisia is going through.

Saudi Arabia has a history of receiving deposed rulers and out-of-favor politicians. Former Uganda dictator Idi Amin spent his final years in Jeddah.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said earlier that he would act as president until elections could be held.

"The current circumstances do not allow for the return of Ben Ali to Tunisia," Ghannouchi told Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera by telephone early on Saturday.

He said Tunisian opposition figures based abroad were free to return to the North African country of 10 million.

(Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Ulf Laessing and Andrew Hammond; writing by Andrew Hammond)

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