|Ben Ali fled Tunisia for Jeddah after mass protests in the country called for his ouster [AFP]
Former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali is in a grave condition in hospital in Saudi Arabia, sources have said.
The 74-year old ousted leader suffered a stroke and was "in a coma", a family friend said on Thursday, as more details of corruption under his rule came to light in Tunisia.
"He had a stroke, and his condition is serious," the source said, adding that Ben Ali slipped into a coma "two days ago" while being treated for the condition in a Jeddah hospital.
Ben Ali fled Tunisia to Jeddah after being ousted in a popular revolt in his home country, calling for an end to his 23-year rule. He has been living in Saudi Arabia since January 14.
Earlier, a spokesman for the interim government that replaced Ben Ali's regime would neither confirm nor deny the reports that he was in hospital.
Tunisia's Le Quotidien newspaper had reported on Thursday that he had a stroke.
Government spokesman Taieb Baccouch said Mohamed Ghannouchi's transitional government, which includes members of the opposition, would discuss Ben Ali's condition during a cabinet meeting on Friday.
'A part of Tunisia's past'
Dissident and journalist Touafik Ben Brik, who was jailed under the regime for articles criticising Ben Ali, told AFP he felt as if he was "almost in mourning" for the dictator, such was his hold on the country.
"I can never forget. He is still in us, he is part of our past and he will live for a long time in us."
Yadh Ben Achour, a Tunisian lawyer and head of the newly established national commission for political reform, said Ben Ali's hospitalisation in exile "is proof there is justice on earth".
On the streets of Tunis, there was little sympathy for former president as the news broke.
"If he dies, we're losing a dictator and I say 'Good riddance'," said Adel, a 50-year-old teacher. "We're turning a page, we've other things to do in this country."
Since Ben Ali fled his homeland, details have gradually come to light of the extent of corruption under his rule.
He and his wife Leila Trabelsi, along with their inner circle, are suspected of having pocketed much of the country's wealth over the years, and of taking personal stakes in much of the economy.
Central bank chief Mustapha Kamel Nabli said this week that Tunisian banks funded businesses linked to the families of the couple to around 1.3bn euros ($1.7bn). Nearly 30 per cent of the cash was provided with no guarantees of repayment.