All eyes on Darfur talks at summit

A summit intended to strengthen ties between Africa and former colonial power France opened on Thursday but all eyes will be on a subject not on the agenda — Sudan’s battered Darfur province.

In what is very likely to be his last such meeting before he leaves office, President Jacques Chirac has brought the leaders of most of Africa’s countries to the seaside resort of Cannes for the summit, held once every two years.

The schedule features round-table discussions on Africa’s commodities and its place in the world, but a likely meeting between the presidents of Sudan and neighbouring Central African Republic and Chad will address a more immediate crisis.

A source close to Chirac said the three leaders were likely to meet on Thursday afternoon for talks on Darfur, from where clashes have spilt over into Sudan’s eastern neighbours.

The United Nations Security Council has proposed sending peacekeepers to secure Darfur’s border area, but UN officials say there must first be a peace to keep between government forces and armed rebels.

Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has resisted pressure to authorise a deployment of 3 000 UN peacekeepers to support the 7 000-strong African Union (AU) mission in Darfur, where experts say 200 000 people have been killed and 2,5-million others driven from their homes in four years of rape, murder and pillage.

Washington calls the crimes genocide. UN and AU observers blame the pro-government militia, known locally as Janjaweed, for the worst atrocities.

Khartoum denies genocide, a term European governments are also reluctant to use. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating alleged war crimes in the region.

Vast natural resources

Foreign powers are competing for the continent’s vast natural resources, which will be discussed at one of the three round-table meetings on Thursday.

China has been offering low-interest loans, debt relief and other incentives to increase its influence in the world’s poorest continent, in return for access to the natural resources it needs to feed its booming economy.

It is offering financial assistance without insisting that it be conditional on standards of good governance as demanded by Western countries, including France.

”India, China, Brazil, Iran, the United States … are very interested in Africa,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told France 3 television. ”Competition is fierce.”

Central African Republic’s Foreign Minister Come Zoumara said the aim was to deepen existing ties with France as well as its rivals.

”There is a tradition between France and Africa. This tradition will remain,” he told RFI radio.

”If there is one wish we have, it would be to go even further ahead with France, as we also want it with other countries in the world. We can have good relations with Beijing, as welll as with Washington, South Africa, Angola, India, Singapour,” he added. – Reuters

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