, SIRTE, Jul 2 – African leaders hold talks on Thursday on Somalia and a slate of other conflicts at a continental summit hosted by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, who is lobbying for a powerful pan-African government.
The opening of the summit Wednesday was eclipsed by Gadhafi’s invitation to Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the gathering, only for Tehran to cancel the trip at the last minute without explanation.
His cancellation soothed nerves at the summit, where delegates said Kadhafi had not consulted members before offering Ahmadinejad an international platform — despite protests over alleged fraud in his re-election and Iran’s detention of British embassy staff.
Once the dust settled, the leaders held closed-door talks late into the night Wednesday on the summit’s official agenda of boosting investment in agriculture across the continent.
Leaders from about half of the African Union’s 53 members were at the summit, with Egypt and top oil producers Nigeria and Angola among the most notable absences.
The talks on Thursday were set to turn to the political and armed conflicts roiling the continent, notably in Somalia, where the African Union has deployed 4,300 peacekeepers.
Islamist insurgents launched a new offensive against Somalia’s internationally backed government in early May. The peacekeepers now spend most of their time protecting the president and ensuring that key sea and airports remain open.
"The worst case in Somalia would be a return to a stateless situation and incessant fratricidal attacks," the top AU official Jean Ping told the summit Wednesday.
"This is also a Somalia in a geo-strategic position heightened by its vulnerability, that could be transformed into an enduring point of support for international terrorism and maritime piracy," Ping added.
Somalia and five of its neighbours are asking the AU to send another 4,000 peacekeepers. Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Malawi are seen as candidates for offering troops, but it remains unclear if the African Union has the appetite to expand its operations as the violence intensifies.
The summit has already taken steps to address other hotspots.
The AU Peace and Security Council on Tuesday lifted Mauritania’s suspension from the bloc, after the naming of a transitional government to steer the country toward elections on July 18, following last year’s coup.
In Madagascar, new talks were planned for later this month to resolve the crisis after the elected president Marc Ravalomanana was ousted in March by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, who took power with the army’s blessing.
The summit also must decide how to react to the international war crimes warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over atrocities in Darfur. Beshir has been travelling to countries without treaty obligations to the International Criminal Court to rally support for a suspension of the warrant.
But Gadhafi, the current head of the African Union, has been lobbying hard to push African nations to accept his vision for a greatly empowered AU executive, despite opposition from key countries like South Africa, the region’s economic powerhouse.
Gadhafi wants to bring all the African Union’s existing organs under a single federal authority, part of his broader campaign for a "United States of Africa".
Many countries, especially in eastern and southern Africa, favour a more gradual approach to integration and resent Kadhafi’s pressure to quickly create a more powerful AU Authority.