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(photo credit: REUTERS)
TUNIS - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Tunisia on Thursday to carry out economic and political reform as it emerges from authoritarian rule and praised the country for aiding refugees from fighting in Libya.
Protests that forced former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia on Jan. 14 have sparked uprisings across the Arab world, including in Libya where rebels are trying to fend off an offensive by veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi.
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Making her final stop on a trip that included Egypt, where former President Hosni Mubarak fell from power on Feb. 11, Clinton stressed the United States' desire to help Tunisia with its internal challenges and the refugee flows from Libya.
Touring a Red Crescent training centre, Clinton said Tunisia needed to focus on creating jobs for the thousands of people whose meagre prospects helped fuel its revolution.
"We need a plan for economic development, for jobs. The Tunisian people deserve that," Clinton told reporters, saying the United States would take part in a donors' conference later this year to help the North African nation.
"The revolution created so many hopes and now we have to translate those hopes into results and that comes through economic reform and political reform," she added.AIR STRIKES AGAINST GADDAFI?
Clinton visited Tunisia as Libyan government forces in the neighbouring state battled rebels on the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi and Washington raised the possibility of air strikes to stop Gaddafi's forces.
The United States and other nations have been criticised for not doing more to protect the Libyan people and the opposition forces trying to oust Gaddafi, whose forces have been steadily advancing into rebel-held areas.
A small group of protesters marched in the streets of Tunis on Thursday chanting "Clinton Go" and waving pre-Gaddafi Libyan flags, a symbol of the rebellion against his rule. Clinton did not refer to negotiations over a UN Security Council resolution to authorize a no-fly zone and possibly other steps to try to help the rebels, but she warmly praised Tunisia for helping refugees escaping the conflict.
At the Red Crescent center, she told aid workers "how impressed the world is by Tunisia's remarkable humanitarian response to the crisis on your border".
More than 100,000 people, including many African migrants, have crossed into Tunisia since the uprising against Gaddafi started last month.
"We know you are stretched and you have really stepped up and performed," Clinton added.
"Yet we also know that Tunisia has its own humanitarian needs right now and we want to be sure that we help you meet both humanitarian needs on the border and humanitarian needs inside Tunisia," she said.
Clinton met Interim President Fouad Mebazza and was later to see Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.
Since Ben Ali, who portrayed himself as a bulwark against al Qaeda and
was a strong U.S. ally, fled to Saudi Arabia the Tunisian interim
authorities have struggled to restore stability to the North African
Over the past two weeks they have sketched a transition roadmap and
called a July 24 election for a national constituent assembly that will
rewrite the constitution.
A new caretaker government of technocrats was unveiled earlier this
month after the collapse of two previous interim administrations which
included members of Ben Ali's old guard.
Ben Ali's feared secret police services have been dismantled, while more
than 30 new or previously banned parties have been allowed onto the