WASHINGTON — Tunisia's status as a "non-NATO ally" of the United States has been approved, the US State Department said, paving the way for enhanced military cooperation between the countries.

Washington hailed the partnership between the United States and Tunisia after the Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status was confirmed Friday.

"MNNA status sends a strong signal of our support for Tunisia's decision to join the world's democracies," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

He added the "status is a symbol of our close relationship."

In May, US President Barack Obama declared Tunisia a non-NATO ally while hosting his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi at the White House.

The United States is hoping to strengthen Essebsi, who in December became the first democratically elected leader in Tunisia's 60-year history.

Kirby said the status offers Tunisia a host of "tangible privileges, including eligibility for training, loans of equipment for cooperative research and development, and foreign military financing for commercial leasing of certain defense articles."

Tunisia is the 16th country to become a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States.

Tunisia became the flashpoint of Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East in 2011 when a disaffected fruit vendor set himself alight, arousing pent-up anger at failing government and economic hardship.

Granting the country MNNA status is a bid to bolster the country against the rising threat of jihadist groups in the region.

On June 26, a gunman killed 38 foreign holidaymakers, including 30 Britons, at a beach resort.

The massacre followed an attack in March, when two jihadists gunned down 21 tourists and a policeman at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.

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