Chávez, Ahmadinejad Show Solidarity With Africa

By Heidi Vogt
Associated Press
Sunday, July 2, 2006

BANJUL, Gambia, July 1 -- A summit of African leaders opened Saturday with a special welcome for the presidents of Iran and Venezuela, each visiting the poorest continent to win support in disputes with the United States.

President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia hailed the presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran 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 his country in its standoff with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has made several highly publicized trips to Asia, where he drew crowds of Muslims cheering his country for defying the West.

Chavez has backed Iran's controversial nuclear program, which the United States and the European Union want rolled back despite Iran's insistence that its intentions 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."

Richard Méndez, deputy head of mission at the Venezuelan Embassy in Ethiopia, said Venezuela was 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 Mendez said that, more importantly, Chavez's appearance showed solidarity with Africa.

Leaders at the weekend summit are expected to address issues including the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, the rise of hard-line Islamic leadership in Somalia and Africans' often-deadly attempts to illegally migrate to Europe.

Even if the African Union passes resolutions, members are not held to them, and the body has little funding to pursue independent action.

Among African leaders confirmed to attend were Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Mwai Kibaki of Kenya.

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 policymaking peace council made clear that it wanted the handoff, refusing to extend the mandate of African Union forces beyond September. The council also announced targeted sanctions against anyone who stood in the way of peace in Darfur. Sudan has resisted U.N. peacekeepers.

The Darfur conflict began in early 2003 when members of ethnic African tribes rose in revolt against the government. Sudan's government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab militiamen 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 the Central African Republic.

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