By David Brunnstrom
TUNIS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised more support for security, economic reforms, and democratization in Tunisia on Friday and said he had signed an agreement to start negotiations on a third U.S. loan guarantee for the country.
Kerry said after talks in Tunis that U.S. military officials would visit in about two weeks for talks about provision of helicopters, and intelligence-gathering using drones.
“To preserve and protect Tunisia’s emerging democracy and growing prosperity, expanding the security cooperation is going to be essential,” he told a news briefing with Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche, stressing threats Tunisia faced from Islamist militants from neighboring Libya and elsewhere.
Kerry did not elaborate on the drone plan, but said the United States understood that “sovereignty and control” of unmanned aerial vehicles was very important for Tunisia. “We respect that," he said.
Kerry said Tunisia's democracy remained a work in progress but the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolutions was “a shining example to those who claim that democracy is not possible in this part of the world.”
Kerry said he and Baccouche had signed “a declaration of intent signifying our readiness immediately to pursue the specific terms and conditions of our third loan guarantee.”
The United States said in May during a visit to Washington by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi it was prepared to consider a loan guarantee of up to $500 million for Tunisia if the funding was needed to help advance economic reforms.
Washington has said it has provided Tunisia with more than $700 million of economic, development and security assistance since 2011. It provided two loan guarantees in 2012 and 2014 totaling about $1 billion.
Kerry said Washington had provided $250 million specifically in security assistance and he had told Barrouche officials would talk to Congress about specific needs to make sure U.S. budgeting and appropriations would include ”additional help for the security needs of Tunisia."
Last year, Washington announced a plan to sell Tunisia a dozen Black Hawk attack helicopters worth an estimated $700 million and after meeting Essebsi in Washington in May, U.S. President Barack Obama designated Tunisia a major non-NATO ally in recognition of its progress since 2011.
Kerry, who stopped in Tunisia before heading to Vienna for talks on Syria, also said he had met Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni recently and they had discusssed a possible conference on Libya some time in coming months. He did not elaborate.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom)