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Hillary Does Tunisia

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in this North African nation Thursday to celebrate its record on women's rights. But first, she came face-to-face with its attitude toward political freedom.

Saluted at the Tunis airport by a saber-wielding honor guard of elaborately cloaked military officers, Mrs. Clinton released a statement saying she came to strengthen American ties to Tunisia and "learn more about your extraordinary achievements."

The first lady's Air Force plane, getting to Tunis a bit early, was asked to circle the verdant coastline a half-dozen times while the red-carpet greeting was assembled.

Preparing for her address the next day at Tunis' Congressional Palace, Mrs. Clinton sat down with a dozen of this nation's prominent female activists including a film director, human rights advocate and opposition-party member of Parliament.

The women's discussion at the cliff top residence of U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel, overlooking Carthage and the Gulf of Tunis, was hastily shut to reporters after participants said they didn't want their views broadcast in the media.

Tunisia, slightly smaller than Missouri and wedged between the volatile Libya and Algeria, keeps a tight rein on political opposition.

There are no practical rights to freedom of speech or political expression, said one U.S. official.

But the first lady, holding to the nonconfrontational style of her 12-day North African trip to date, said she was here mostly to celebrate the country's record of investments in women and children.

The government spends 20 percent of its annual budget implementing a program of health, education and employment rights for women and girls.

Ninety-nine percent of Tunisian girls are old enough for the first grade are in school, and 45 percent of college students here are women. Family-planning services are widely available and abortion is legal. Tunisia, a predominantly middle-class nation, is the only Arab state to outlaw polygamy.

Before leaving Egypt earlier Thursday, Mrs. Clinton repeated to an Arab audience her husband's argument for the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and prayed the allies "will be able to conduct it safely and will bring it to as swift an end as possible."

The first lady also announced in Luxor, Egypt, a $45 million grant from the United States to expand and improve the ancient city's wastewater treatment system.

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