U.S. worried by Tunisia riots, Internet freedoms

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Friday, 7 January 2011 19:09 GMT

* U.S. says Tunisia may be interfering with Facebook

* Riots in Tunisia, Algeria highlight unstable region

* Clinton to talk Iran, social reform on Gulf tour

By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The United States has called in Tunisia's ambassador because of its handling of anti-government riots and possible interference with the Internet, including Facebook accounts, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

Speaking one day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to the Gulf to discuss expanding civil society freedoms across the Arab world, a U.S. State Department official said the department was concerned about rising unrest in Tunisia and Algeria, which both have seen rioting in recent weeks.

"We're certainly watching what's happening in both Tunisia and Algeria with a great deal of interest," a senior State Department official said.

Clashes broke out last month in Tunisia as students, professionals and youths protested a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms. Neighboring Algeria has beefed up security as protests broke out over food prices and unemployment.

The State Department official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tunisia's ambassador was called in on Thursday to receive a formal expression of concern.

"(We) expressed our concern about both what is happening with regard to the demonstrations and expressed and encouraged the Tunisian government to ensure that civil liberties are respected, including the freedom to peacefully assemble," the official said.

The protests have grown into the most widespread and violent flare-up of dissent during President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule. They have included street demonstrations and a strike by lawyers to demand an end to what they said were beatings by security forces.

"QUITE CONCERNED"

"We also raised the issue of what looks like Tunisian government interference with the Internet, most notably Facebook," the State Department official said. "Frankly speaking, we're quite concerned about this and we're looking at the best and most effective way to respond and to get the result we want."

The official did not specify what actions the Tunisian authorities had taken.

Clinton has repeatedly criticized countries including Iran and China for censoring the Internet and efforts to block social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which the United States says can be a useful tool for civil groups to organize.

Both resource-rich Algeria and Tunisia have joined the West in efforts to fight militant Islamic fundamentalists, seen as a rising threat in the Arab states of north Africa as well as the broader Middle East region.

Clinton will depart on Saturday for a trip to the Gulf, where she will both discuss key security concerns such as Iran's nuclear program as well as to push autocratic governments to engage more with civil society.

"She's going to to go out and showcase our emphasis on partnership with civil society," the official said, highlighting Clinton's stops in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar from Jan. 8-13.

All three countries are run by rulers who are strong U.S. allies but less than enthusiastic about extending broad democratic freedoms. The U.S. official said Clinton would underscore that governments should partner with both business and civil society groups. (Editing by Bill Trott)

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