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African Union summit starts with dispute over leader

The African Union (AU) was to kick off its 14th summit Sunday, with a rift over Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's likely bid to keep the organisation's chair set to overshadow talks on the continent's many conflicts.

world Updated: Jan 31, 2010 08:02 IST

The African Union (AU) was to kick off its 14th summit Sunday, with a rift over Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's likely bid to keep the organisation's chair set to overshadow talks on the continent's many conflicts.

The summit's official theme is information technology and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was expected to highlight the importance of putting the Millennium Development Goals back on their 2015 target.

But the 53-member body's annual meeting at the Addis Ababa headquarters looked set to be hijacked by one of its most controversial leaders.

Kadhafi was elected almost by default a year ago but set the tone for his tenure by claiming to be the "king of kings" and vowing to achieve the "United States of Africa" project he has championed for years.

But his dream of a fully integrated continent, his pet craze since he pushed through the creation of the AU in 2001, still looks a tall order and the unease was palpable in the corridors of the Addis headquarters ahead of the summit.

"Kadhafi's chairmanship has been very harmful to the AU's image, notably in the handling of political crises such as Madagascar and Guinea," said an official close to Jean Ping, who heads the body's main executive arm.

The system of rotating regional blocs should hand the job to a southern African leader and a consensus had begun to emerge around Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, but some diplomats fear Kadhafi will put up a fight.

"It is said that Kadhafi is determined to take this to a vote because he thinks enough countries will support him," an AU official said.

Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, who arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Friday, is another leader who is likely to attract some attention.

His movements have been closely monitored since the International Criminal Court last year slapped him with an arrest warrant over the atrocities committed in the Darfur region since 2003.

In a report released less than two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch pilloried the AU for supporting the embattled Sudanese leader, arguing that such a move was a blow to the entire institution's credibility.

"The AU, led by some of the continent's worst autocrats, began accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africans. In reality, these leaders were cynically trying to protect one of their own," it said.

The summit it also expected to focus, as is the case every year, on the continent's various political crises and armed conflicts, notably Somalia, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger and Ivory Coast.

In an interview with AFP on Saturday, Ban put particular emphasis on the fate of Sudan, where tension has been mounting in the run-up to a 2011 referendum in which the south is widely expected to choose independence from Khartoum, only six years after signing a peace deal.

"The UN has a big responsibility with the AU to maintain peace in Sudan and make unity attractive... This year will be crucially important for Sudan with the election in three months and the referendum in a year," he said.

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