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Arab League calls for calm and unity in Tunisia

CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League called on Saturday for Tunisia’s political forces and other groups to keep the peace and lead the North African country out of crisis after the president was swept from power amid widespread protests.

The statement by the Cairo-based League was one of the first Arab statements on developments in Tunisia.

Saudi Arabia had earlier expressed support for Tunisians as they overcome this “difficult stage” in a statement welcoming the arrival in the kingdom of ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Many other Arab states have stayed silent.

The Arab League called “for all political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together and unite to maintain the achievements of the Tunisian people and realize national peace.”

It called for a return to calm and urged the country to reach a “national consensus on ways to bring the country out of this crisis in a way that guarantees respect for the will of the Tunisian people.”

Asked about repercussions of events in Tunisia on the Arab world at large, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters at a conference on Saturday: “Tunisia’s events are serious events and a development that has historical dimensions, and shapes the beginning of one era and the end of another.”

Moussa said events in Tunisia would be discussed during the League’s economic conference in Egypt, adding that he expected a representative from Tunisia to be present at the event. The four-day conference will be held from January 16-19.

Moussa said he had not yet contacted Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi but there would be “contacts at the highest level in the coming period.” Ghannouchi said on Friday he was taking over as interim president.

Egypt’s said it was watching events in Tunisia closely, and respected the choice of the Tunisian people.

“Egypt affirms its respect for the choices of the people in brotherly Tunisia as it trusts in the wisdom of its Tunisian brothers in fixing the situation and avoiding the collapse of Tunisia into chaos,” a foreign ministry statement said.

Analysts say the toppling of Ben Ali will send shock waves through the Arab world, where most countries are ruled by monarchs or authoritarian rulers, some in power for decades.

Additional reporting by Ayman Samir and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Giles Elgood