Tunisia: Obama seeks free and fair polls; EU flies tourists home

US Prez hailed the courage of people after the toppling of Tunisian leader.

Washington: US President Barack Obama on Friday called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and praised the courage and dignity of its people after the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," Obama said in a statement.

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.”

"I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."

Meanwhile, Thomas Cook, one of Europe`s biggest tour operators, said on Friday it was evacuating around 1,800 British and Irish holidaymakers from Tunisia due to the political unrest.

"Although there has been no specific problems for our holidaymakers, their well-being is our primary concern so, as a precaution, we`ve taken the decision to bring them back to the UK as soon as we can, using our fleet of aircraft," a spokeswoman said.

Thomas Cook cancelled its next departures from Britain to Tunisia, due out on Sunday.

"We are currently reviewing the situation for the next departures which are planned for Wednesday and we`ll be contacting all customers shortly," the tour operator said.

Earlier, Ben Ali fled Tunisia in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power following a wave of social protests in which dozens of people have been reported killed.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over as interim president, vowed to enact social and political reforms, said fresh elections would be held within six months.

Obama argued "that each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.”

"Countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not," he said.

"I have no doubt that Tunisia`s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people."

The United States was a longstanding ally of the anti-Islamist Ben Ali, although it occasionally irritated him with criticism of his human rights record.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hoped to work with Tunisians during the transition.

"We are committed to helping the people and government bring peace and stability to their country and we hope that they will work together to build a stronger, more democratic society that respects the rights of all people," Hillary said.

Hillary stepped up calls on Arab leaders to reform during a trip this week to the region. At a forum in Qatar, she warned that the region`s "foundations are sinking into the sand”.

During the trip, "I heard people everywhere yearning for economic opportunity, political participation and the chance to build a better future," she said.

"Young people especially need to have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives. Addressing these concerns will be challenging, but the United States stands ready to help," Hillary said.

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