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    US Sends Senior Envoy to Tunisia

    US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman  (file photo)
    US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman (file photo)

    The Obama administration has sent a senior envoy to Tunisia to underscore U.S. support for efforts there to transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. The United States is offering Tunisian authorities help in organizing promised elections.

    The dispatch to Tunisia of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman underscores U.S. interest in seeing a peaceful and democratic outcome to the political upheaval there that ousted President Zine Abidine Ben Ali.

    Weeks of street protests and rioting drove Mr. Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 22 years, into exile on January 14.

    Unrest has continued with protestors demanding that holdovers from the previous government be purged from the new transitional administration.

    Announcing the Feltman mission several hours after his departure for Tunis, State Department Spokesman P. J. Crowley said the assistant secretary will seek a "first hand view" of the situation and sound out the new authorities on how the United States can assist in building a stable democracy.

    "We support the transition that is underway, and we hope that this transition will be  peaceful.  We understand that Tunisian civil society has questions about the nature of the government. Clearly after decades of mistrust, there are questions that the people continue to raise. The government is trying to be responsive. W e know that this is hard.  And we know that the government will at times have missteps along the way," he said.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday telephoned Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to commend the interim government’s call for elections within six months and initial steps to investigate corruption and past abuses.

    Mr. Ghannouchi has held the post since 1999 and is himself the target of public protests from trade union and other factions pressing him to step aside.

    Crowley said U.S. officials are encouraged by steps the interim government has taken to begin dialogue with civil society groups, release prisoners and ease media curbs.  But he said that a "lot of work" remains to be done.

    He said part of Feltman’s mission will be to evaluate how the United States can support the electoral process in Tunisia, perhaps through technical assistance by U.S. non-governmental groups that have been active in democratization efforts elsewhere.

    Feltman, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, is to have a second day of meetings in Tunis on Tuesday before returning to Washington.

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