January 31, 2011 / 5:57 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 1-EU agrees to freeze assets of Tunisia's Ben Ali

* EU officials say asset freezes could be extended

* Ministers call for release of political prisoners (Updates with statement)

BRUSSELS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The European Union agreed on Monday to freeze the assets of Tunisia’s former President Zine-al Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, while holding out the prospect of better trade ties with a post-election government.

EU officials said the sanctions could be extended in future to other people considered to have misappropriated state funds.

Ben Ali and his family built up interests in many Tunisian companies and industries during his two decades in power, including hotels, banks, tuna exports, construction, newspapers and pharmaceuticals.

He was driven out by a popular revolt on Jan. 14 and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia.

EU ministers meeting in Brussels expressed regret at the violence and loss of life in the unrest but said ties would be strengthened thanks to the country’s democratic transition.

In a statement they urged the transitional government to release of political prisoners and legalise political parties, and offered support for the holding of elections.

It said the European Union intended to conclude an agreement with the government that emerged from democratic elections to bring relations to “advanced status”, which would entail better trade terms.

The EU has been alarmed by the spread of popular unrest in the Middle East and Africa [nLDE70U1BV] and has been trying to forge a new relationship Tunisia, a country with which it developed strong trade and political ties during Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.

France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, Italy and Spain all had good relations with Ben Ali and his government in recent years, while at the same time urging democratic reforms.

It was not yet clear where the Ben Ali family’s assets were held, although Switzerland has said it intends to freeze any deposited there. France has announced measures to block any suspicious movements of Tunisian money.

Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, spoke to Tunisia’s foreign minister by telephone on Friday and invited him to come to Brussels this week to discuss how the EU could help the country as it tries to restore stability. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom)

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