- US Secretary of State Colin Powell today met with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis and urged the Tunisian leader to pursue democratic and economic reforms. Mr Powell is on a North Africa roundtrip.
The US Secretary of State and many security guards received the press at the US Embassy in Tunis after he had met with President Ben Ali at the Presidential Palace. "I came to tell President Ben Ali and the other Tunisians that I spoke to that we look to Tunisia as a partner," he summed up.
Asked whether the two men had discussed "broader democratic and human rights reforms" in Tunisia, Mr Powell said there had been "an extended discussion of what has been accomplished under President Ben Ali's leadership over the last fifteen years."
- We talked about the right to an education, the right of women to enter all aspects of society, said Mr Powell. Further, they had "talked about the right of health care and other rights. But we also talked about the need for open press, open media."
He had take notice of the opening up a private radio station and the recent release of a journalist from detention. "I have encouraged Tunisian leaders that I have met with today to continue this process of political reform," said Mr Powell.
The US Secretary of State said he had "a good candid conversation with the President that Tunisia has accomplished so much that people are still expecting more to happen, with respect to political reform and with respect to openness in the society."
He added that he was convinced that President Ben Ali was "committed to that" and had said he wanted "to move at a pace that he believed was consistent with the aspirations and desires and expectations of the Tunisian people." Mr Powell advised the Tunisian President that this was an area that he and the US President would have to discuss when they meet in February.
At the Presidential Palace in Tunis, Mr Powell also applauded the achievements made by the Tunisian government. According to Mr Powell, Tunisia had "the highest in literacy rates in the world, openness in the society to the participation of women."
The US diplomat also mentioned the need for further economic reform in Tunisia. "In order to spur progress, we signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and held an excellent inaugural round of negotiations recently that I think will ultimately result in a Free Trade Agreement," he told the press.
A Tunisian-US free trade deal could however mess up Tunisia's intentions of closer economic integration with the European Union (EU). A Tunisian journalist therefore asked Mr Powell if there was any competition between the US and the EU.
- No, Mr Powell promptly answered. "No competition whatsoever." The US diplomat is in Tunis just one day before French President Jacques Chirac arrives to prepare the upcoming North Africa-EU talks over deeper economic ties. The timing of the visit "was pure chance," Mr Powell maintained.
In addition to the need for political and economic reform in Tunisia, President Ben Ali and Mr Powell had also covered a full range of issues. This included the crisis in Iraq, Middle East and bilateral relationship, which Mr Powell said were "very, very strong."
Mr Powell is on a short North Africa roundtrip. Tomorrow, he is expected to meet high government officials in both Morocco and Algeria, where he is believed to discuss trade and security issues and the Western Sahara peace process.
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