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President backs out of bid for leadership of African Union amid pressure to improve conditions in Darfur

1/29/2006 5:22am


January 25, 2006
KHARTOUM, Sudan - Africa's leaders yesterday blocked Sudan from taking leadership of the organization that is charged with easing the continent's problems, and Sudanese officials accused the United States of sinking their bid for the chairmanship.

After a day of negotiations at a summit in Khartoum, the African Union decided that Sudan, accused in the deaths of more than 180,000 of its citizens in Darfur, would not receive the chairmanship until next year.

Seeking to avoid an open fracture and a public-relations quagmire, leaders of the 53-member, 4-year-old organization persuaded Sudan's president, Omar Hassan el Bashir, to withdraw his bid for leadership. Some officials suggested that despite yesterday's face-saving compromise he was unlikely to head the union in 2007 unless conditions in Darfur improve.

In Bashir's place, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo was chosen to helm the organization's daunting effort to battle disease, war and poverty on the world's poorest continent.

Sassou-Nguesso seized power in a 1979 coup and fought his way back to the presidency in 1997 after a civil war.

He has "a vision that is larger than his own country," said Jendayi Frazer, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

"I think it's a wonderful outcome," Frazer said. "Sudan now has an incentive to quickly resolve the crisis in Darfur."

Sudan said the United States sent Frazer to hamper its bid.

"The question isn't a question of Darfur but that we are being targeted," Sudanese Information Minister Alzahawi Ibrahim Malik said.

There had been much criticism internationally over the western Darfur region, where Sudan's army and janjaweed militia are accused of a scorched-earth campaign that has forced more than 2 million people into refugee camps. Had Bashir become chairman, he would have been responsible for oversight of the 7,000-person African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, a conflict of interest that raised howls from human rights groups. Rebels threatened to boycott peace talks if Sudan won the chair.

Sudanese officials said they withdrew for the sake of unity, confident they would attain the leadership next year. But two African delegates, both of whom requested anonymity, said Sudan probably would be snubbed again if Darfur didn't improve.

"If Sudan is exactly where it is today one year from now, they are going to do exactly what they did today," Frazer said.

Sudan won praise last year for a wide-ranging peace deal that ended a two-decade civil war in the South that claimed more than a million lives. Sudan's oil industry attracts billions of dollars in investment from China and other countries.

Meanwhile, in Darfur, "The situation has not improved very much, and we are still seeing people being killed; the rape is continuing," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters last week in New York.

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