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Can Tunisia keep radical neighbors at bay?. Ability to fend off Libya, Algeria in post-Bourguiba era questioned

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To the east is Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, to the west is socialist Algeria. Sandwiched between two radical Arab states, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba has so far managed to keep his neighbors at bay and independently forge a pro-Western policy. For Tunisia's former colonial power, France, as well as the United States, Tunisia's stability is of crucial importance. What Central America is to the US, North Africa is to France. And, as with the US, a primary French interest is to maintain a stable, friendly government in the region.

The most obvious external threat to Tunisian stability comes from Colonel Qaddafi. In recent weeks, Tunisia has sought to normalize relations with Libya and remove the threat of subversion from its eastern flank.

In 1985 Tunisia broke off diplomatic ties after Libya expelled 32,000 Tunisian workers and seized their assets. Libya also violated Tunisian airspace, and several letter-bombs in Tunis were attributed to Libyan agents.

Tunisia has lost an estimated $200 million in revenues it would have made from free-spending Libyan tourists and from worker's remittances in the past two years. The Libyans have now agreed to Tunisia's conditions for compensation. Several high-ranking Libyan officials have met recently with Mr. Bourguiba and his ministers to work out the details.

Even before 1985, the Tunisians were threatened by Libyan activities. In 1980, Libyan-backed Tunisian dissidents mounted an insurrection in the southern Tunisian town of Gafsa. The attack revealed serious weaknesses in Tunisian defense capabilities. The Tunisian military had to wait 36 hours until Morocco sent military transport planes to ferry troops to Gafsa. French aircraft overflew Tunisia to ward off Libyan intervention.

``After Gafsa, the government became conscious of the danger of Qaddafi and began modernizing the Army,'' says a former Tunisian security official.

Since then, the US government has supplied Tunisia with some $500 million in military assistance to counter Libyan threats. The Reagan administration has requested at least $40 million in military aid for Tunisia for fiscal 1988 to help deter Libya. After the break with Libya, the US and Tunisia formed a joint commission to discuss defense issues of common interest. The bulk of equipment in Tunisia's 40,000-man military is American.

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