TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed for democratic reform in Tunisia as she met Saturday with the president of this American ally and partner in the fight against terrorism.
“We talked about internal matters here in Tunisia and about the course of reform,” Rice told reporters after meeting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the capital, Tunis.
She praised, however, the strong security cooperation and business ties the U.S. has with the small North African country.
“We are good friends and we had very good discussions about internal and external matters,” Rice said. The nearly two-hour talks addressed “the circumstances here in the region in terms of security and counterterrorism,” she said, also praising Tunisia for its leading role in the plan to tighten North African cooperation within an “Arab Maghreb Union.”
The Maghreb is the region of Africa north of the Sahara Desert and West of the Nile River.
In power since a bloodless palace coup in 1987, Ben Ali has won several landslide electoral victories tainted by charges of fraud. He is expected to run for a fifth term next year.
In a statement issued Friday, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on Rice to urge the Tunisian government to “end its harassment and imprisonment of human rights activists.”
Rights groups frequently criticize Tunisia for tightly controlling the media and trampling civil liberties, though this tourist-friendly and relatively liberal Muslim North African country is also praised for promoting women’s rights and economic reform.
“I do want to say that the extraordinary role of women in Tunisia is something I raised” with the president, Rice said. “Women have made great progress here.” Rice is on a three-day visit to North Africa, her first to this region of increasing strategic importance in terms of oil resources, emigration and fighting terrorism.
On Friday, she became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya in more than 50 years.
“The relationship has been moving in a good direction for a number of years now and I think tonight does mark a new phase,” Rice said Friday after a traditional Ramadan dinner, the evening meal that breaks the day’s fast during the Muslim holy month, with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Washington considers Gadhafi rehabilitated since his surprise decision in 2003 to renounce terrorism and give up weapons of mass destruction. His government has also agreed to resolve legal claims from the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and other alleged terror attacks that bore Libyan fingerprints.
There has been a surge in interest from U.S. companies, particularly in the energy sector, to do business in Libya, where European companies have had much greater access in recent years. Libya’s proven oil reserves are No. 9 in the world, close to 39 billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.
Rice is expected later Saturday in Algeria, which holds the world’s estimated 14th-largest oil reserve. On Sunday, she is due in Morocco to meet with the king.