African leaders meet in summit dogged by Libya

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African Union leaders opened a two-day summit Thursday overshadowed by the conflict in Libya, after criticism of French weapons supplies to rebels and an arrest warrant for Moamer Kadhafi.

After France announced that it had air-dropped arms to anti-Kadhafi rebels, AU Commission chairman Jean Ping warned of weapons falling in to the hands of Al-Qaeda who could use them to take Western hostages, and of the conflict growing to reach the level of one in Somalia.

"What worries us is not who is giving what," Ping said on the eve of the two-day gathering of AU leaders trying to mediate an end to the four-month conflict as rebel fighters backed by NATO strikes advance on Tripoli.

"It is simply that these weapons are being given by all parties to all the other parties. These weapons are already reaching Al-Qaeda, drug dealers and traffickers.

"They will be used to destabilise African states and to kidnap tourists for whom you pay ransom," he said, adding he also meant weapons handed out by Kadhafi.

Earlier Wednesday, France acknowledged it has been air-dropping weapons to Berber tribal fighters southwest of Tripoli, insisting the move was not in breach of a UN arms embargo as they were mainly light firearms to help civilians protect themselves.

A French military official described the arms as "light infantry weapons of the rifle type" and said the drops were carried out over several days "so that civilians would not be massacred".

France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said his country's delivery of arms to the rebels was not in breach of a Security Council resolution that established an arms embargo to Libya.

Late Wednesday, an AU roadmap for a way out of the conflict was fine-tuned for presentation to a closed session of the summit, which officials said had drawn about 30 of the continent's leaders.

The AU plan envisages a ceasefire, transition and reforms that "respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for democracy, rule of law, good governance, justice and development," Ping said.

Five presidents working on the roadmap expect endorsement of their plan in a closed session after the summit opens, but there is division among the delegates with some backing the embattled Libyan leader who has funded many African causes and whose portrait is among those displayed in Malabo for the event.

Other African Union officials however admit it is the end of the road for Kadhafi, who was president of the continental grouping two years ago and has funded many African causes, although few say this publicly.

"He has to leave. No-one wants to say it because he has financed more than one of them," said a member of one delegation on condition of anonymity.

But the AU has also slammed NATO-led air raids against Kadhafi's forces.

On Wednesday, Ping also criticised an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for atrocities out for Kadhafi, one of his sons and his intelligence chief. "It complicates the situation," he said.

The Libyan minister for African Union affairs Joma Ibrahim Amer met leaders in Malabo ahead of the summit, with a delegation from the rebel Transitional National Council also invited.

"We have come for the African Union to support our position and that the position of Africa will be strong," Amer told reporters Wednesday.

The regime has accepted the roadmap but the rebels say they will only consider a plan that sees Kadhafi stepping down.

A senior British defence official meanwhile said Wednesday that London would not emulate France's move because that would raise "quite a few issues," including with the UN resolution that authorised military action in Libya.

But Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stated that London has given the Libyan rebels 5,000 sets of body armour, as well as police uniforms, high-visibility vests and communications equipment.

He made clear that this was "fully in line" with the UN Security Council resolution governing international action on Libya and the arms embargo.

Another issue set to dominate the summit is flaring tensions in Sudan ahead of the south of the country's independence on July 9 as well as Somalia, where the African Union wants to boost the number of troops in its peacekeeping force and deploy helicopters.

The official theme of the summit is youth development, seen as vital to containing social discontent on a continent wracked by chronic poverty, even in the oil-rich states like Equatorial Guinea which spent 600 million euros on a flashy new summit complex.

The uprisings in Tunisia that spread to Egypt and Libya and elsewhere have been followed by a wave of demonstrations in sub-Saharan countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal and Swaziland and have rattled others like Zimbabwe.

"You see the youth just standing around in the villages, anybody can use them for their own purposes -- they must be constructively engaged," said delegate Thelma Awori from the Femmes Africa Solidarite civil society group.

© 2011 AFP

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