Residents in several parts of the Tunisian capital said groups were marauding through neighbourhoods setting fire to buildings and attacking people and property, with no police in sight.
Occasional gunshots could be heard in the centre of Tunis as well as the sound of tear gas grenades being fired, while helicopters patrolled overhead and acrid smoke hung in the air.
Several witnesses in Denden, 19km from the capital, said soldiers were landed by helicopter to try to restore security. The military released hotline numbers for people to call to report security emergencies.
“There is complete chaos here,” said Wael Bahrini, from the Upper Ettahrir district of Tunis. A young man who gave his name as Wissem said: “It’s total disorder. Our families are frightened.”
In a dramatic climax to weeks of violent protests against his rule, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president for more than 23 years, was pushed out on Friday and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took over as caretaker president.
After dozens of callers to live television shows reported violence and chaos, he went on air, via telephone, to promise everything was being done to restore order.
“I salute the fact that groups of young people have got together to defend their neighbourhoods but we can assure them we will reinforce their security,” Ghannouchi said.
“We are at the service of the Tunisian people. Our country does not deserve everything that is happening. We must regain the trust of citizens in the government.”
In working class suburbs of Tunis, hundreds of residents lined the streets with metal bars and knives trying to ward off looters.
A Reuters reporter said he saw people in civilian clothes firing from unmarked vehicles in the Ettadamen neighbourhood. It was not clear who they were.
“There is a terrible state of fear. May God bring us peace,” one woman, Lilia Sfaxi, told Reuters. “We cannot live any more like this in total fear.”