Darfur, Somalia dominate Africa summit

BANJUL (Reuters) — A two-day Africa summit opened in Gambia on Saturday with a call for urgent action to damp down conflicts in Somalia and Sudan’s Darfur region, but diplomats said there was little chance of much progress on either issue.

“Today we are urgently and seriously called to address the situation in Darfur and in Somalia,” said African Union (AU) Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare in his opening address to the 53-member AU.

The official theme of the six-monthly summit is regional economic integration, but the twin crises in northeast Africa seemed uppermost in the minds of leaders attending the meeting at a flag-bedecked beach hotel outside steamy Banjul.

Konare called for a May 5 peace agreement between the Khartoum government and one Darfur rebel movement to be implemented urgently.

The agreement has been undermined by its rejection by two other rebel groups and bloodshed has continued in the huge western region of Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have died in a 3-year-old rebellion against Khartoum.

Konare said the Darfur situation was strongly influenced by tensions between Chad and Sudan, which have accused each other of supporting rebels on their territories.

“Everything must be done to improve relations between Chad and Sudan,” he said, calling for the rapid implementation of a deal earlier this year to end their disputes.

Sudan said on Saturday it was expelling all the Chadian members of an AU peacekeeping force in Darfur.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also mentioned Darfur in his speech, referring to it as “one of the worst nightmares in recent history”.

Obstacles

Konare said the AU should give “large-scale support” to Somalia’s weak interim government, and encourage dialogue with Islamists now controlling Mogadishu and a large swathe of the country after defeating secular, US-backed warlords.

He called for talks to end rising tension between the two sides based on “tolerance, justice, respect for freedom, respect for human rights and non-violence”.

Despite the strong desire of African leaders to deal with Somalia and Darfur it was clear after the preparatory meeting of foreign ministers earlier this week that there are big obstacles to a breakthrough on either issue.

In Darfur, the African Union wants to hand over peacekeeping duties from its own understrength, under-resourced force of 7,000 troops to United Nations soldiers by September 30.

But on Thursday Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir, who is attending the summit, issued the latest in a series of uncompromising rejections of a UN deployment.

Western and African diplomats in Banjul said that despite widespread revulsion over massacres, rape and pillage in Darfur, the international community had hardly any leverage to pressure Bashir, whose consent is needed for a UN force.

There seems little chance of doing anything more at the summit about Somalia.

Despite the power of the Islamists, who this week said they would extend the authority of Sharia courts throughout Somalia, the AU says it will not deal directly with them. The Islamist side is apparently not even present at the summit.

Somalia’s internationally-recognised interim government, too weak even to enter Mogadishu, is in Banjul. It says the takeover of the Islamist leadership by hardline factions has thrown into doubt talks later this month to defuse rising tension.

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