African Summit Fosters Anti-U.S. Sentiment

By HEIDI VOGT
BANJUL, Gambia - A summit of African leaders opened Saturday with a special welcome for the firebrand presidents of Iran and Venezuela, each visiting the poorest continent to win support for their anti-American agenda.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh hailed the presence of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the summit of the 53-nation African Union as "a morale booster as well as an assurance that Africa can make it."
Ahmadinejad's visit was seen as an attempt to bolster Iran in its standoff with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. The Iranian president has made several high-profile trips to Asia, where he drew crowds of Muslims cheering Tehran for defying the West.
He prayed with African Muslims at Banjul's main mosque Friday, encouraging Gambian Muslims to "come together on the path of Islam to God."
Ninety percent of Gambia's 1.6 million people are Muslim, and Islam is a powerful force throughout much of Africa.
Leftist icon Chavez _ who was to address the summit later Saturday _ repeatedly attacks the U.S. and President Bush in speeches and has worked to form Latin American trading blocs to counterbalance U.S. economic power.
Venezuela, the world's ninth-largest oil producer, has talked to African oil producers about potential collaborations, though no agreements have been signed, said Richard Mendez, deputy head of mission at the Venezuelan Embassy in Ethiopia.
Iran is the fourth-largest global oil producer.
Mendez added that Venezuela is hoping for African support in its bid for one of the rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council, a proposal opposed by the United States.
But Chavez's appearance was more reflective of a broad desire to show solidarity with Africa, Mendez said.
The Venezuelan leader also is planning to visit Iran next month to discuss energy issues.
Leaders at the weekend summit are expected to address issues including the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, the rise of a hard-line Islamic regime in Somalia and often-deadly illegal migration by Africans to Europe.Even if resolutions are passed, African Union members aren't beholden to them and the body has little funding to pursue independent action.
Among African leaders confirmed to attend were 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.
On Darfur, the leaders are expected to reiterate calls for Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers to replace an overtaxed African Union force.
At a meeting this week, the group's policy-making peace council made clear it wanted the handover, refusing to extend the mandate of African Union forces beyond September. The council also announced targeted sanctions against anyone who stands in the way of peace in Darfur.
Sudan has resisted U.N. peacekeepers for Darfur.
"We think the African Union could be supported," rather than replaced, said Taj Elsir Mahjoub, a Sudanese delegate in Banjul.
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 more than 180,000 people dead, driven 2 million from their homes, and undermined stability in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was expected to meet with Mugabe, who is under increasing international pressure to resolve Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.
A proposal threatening suspension of African Union membership for nations that abolish presidential term limits is also under consideration.
Associated Press reporters Todd Pitman and Momodou Jaiteh in Banjul contributed to this report.
A service of the Associated Press(AP)

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