Washington, Jan 15 (Agencies): US President Barack Obama has called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and praised the courage and dignity of its people after the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," Obama said in a statement on Friday.

"The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.

"I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian Government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people."

Earlier, Ben Ali fled Tunisia in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power following a wave of social protests in which dozens of people have been reported killed.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he had taken over as interim President, vowed to enact social and political reforms, said fresh elections would be held within six months.

Obama argued "that each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.

"Countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not," he said.

"I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people."