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African Leaders Grapple With Many Issues

July 1, 2006

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told African leaders Saturday that Sudan’s Darfur conflict is ``one of the worst nightmares in recent history,″ but just one of the challenges facing a continent wracked by war, poverty and disease.

Annan, who is from Ghana, said AIDS rates were dropping in some African countries and investment on the continent was up 200 percent over the last five years.

But ``let us not deceive ourselves,″ he said. ``Overall, the number of Africans living in extreme poverty continues to increase. The spread of HIV/AIDS continues to outpace our efforts to halt it ... The conflicts in Darfur, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Somalia, and northern Uganda continue to outrun efforts for a solution.″

The firebrand presidents of Iran and Venezuela took advantage of the 53-nation African Union summit in Gambia’s small seaside capital to declare solidarity with the impoverished continent and to lash out at the West.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez backed Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which the United States and the European Union want rolled back despite Iran’s insistence that its ambitions are peaceful.

``Doesn’t Iran have the right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful means?″ Chavez said.

Chavez said his nation was ``tired of being exploited by the American empire.″

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused ``bullying powers″ of plundering the wealth of poorer nations.

``They think the countries and nations of the world must be their slaves,″ Ahmadinejad said. ``I know how the oppressed people of Africa and Latin America have suffered.″

Ahmadinejad’s speech was cut short due to technical difficulties that apparently affected his microphone.

A Venezuelan foreign affairs official, Javier Merayo, said Chavez was expected to hold a marathon series of separate talks with 15 African heads of state Saturday.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh hailed the two leaders’ attendance at the summit as ``a morale booster as well as an assurance that Africa can make it.″

Annan met with Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the summit. Annan’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said the secretary general told Ahmadinejad he was ``pleased that Iran showed a serious commitment to the process″ of nuclear negotiations since receiving a proposed incentives package.

On Darfur, the leaders were expected to press Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers to replace an overtaxed AU force _ a move Sudan’s government has so far resisted.

The union’s policy-making peace council made clear this week it wanted the handover and refused to extend the mandate of its forces beyond September. The council also announced targeted sanctions against anyone who stands in the way of peace in Darfur

The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 when members of ethnic African tribes rose in revolt against the Khartoum government. Sudan’s government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab militias known as the janjaweed who have been blamed for the worst atrocities.

The conflict has left nearly 200,000 people dead, driven 2 million from their homes and undermined stability in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.

Resolutions the African Union might pass are not legally binding and the body has little funding to pursue independent action.

African leaders attending the conference included South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki.

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Associated Press reporter Todd Pitman contributed to this report.

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