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Russia's Lavrov in Tunisia as Ukraine crisis deepens

AFP , Tuesday 4 Mar 2014
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Tunis on Tuesday for a visit to boost commercial ties, as tensions escalated between Moscow and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.

"We reaffirm our solidarity with the Tunisian people, our support for fundamental changes in Tunisia. We are ready to support this process," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on the visit which did not mention the standoff over Ukraine.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw pro-democracy protests unseat long-ruling strongmen in North Africa and the Middle East.

Lavrov arrived late Monday and met Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. He is also due to meet his counterpart, Mongi Hamdi, during the visit.

Their discussions are expected to be focused on expanding economic and trade ties.

"Although the volume of trade in 2013 fell slightly and reached the level of $680 million (490 million euros), we hope to improve this indicator significantly this year," the Russian statement said.

Tunisia's tourism sector, which is vital to the North African nation's economy, will also be on the agenda. Nearly 300,000 Russian tourists visited Tunisia in 2013, up 20 percent from 2012, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

Lavrov will also discuss the situation in Libya and Syria with Tunisian officials.

The visit comes amid rising tensions over the situation in Ukraine, which analysts have called the most serious crisis between the West and Moscow since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Western powers have been wrestling with how to respond to Russia's threat to use force against Ukraine, where Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power following three months of protests that culminated in days of carnage.

Washington has suspended military cooperation with Russia, and the Kremlin has responded to US warnings, saying sanctions against Russia "would end in a crash for the financial system of the United States."

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