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African leaders to meet in Mali Saturday; terrorism on agenda

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BAMAKO, Mali, May 13, 2004 (AP) — African leaders are expected to discuss terrorism and the continent’s crises at the Mali-hosted Saturday summit of a regional bloc launched by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, with heads of state focusing on Sudan ’s war-wracked Darfur province.

More than one dozen leaders are scheduled to attend the one-day annual meeting of the 18-nation Group of Sahel and Sahara States - including President Omar el-Bashir of Sudan and Idriss Deby of neighboring Chad, which has suffered a refugee crisis from months of killing in Darfur.

Any terrorist activity in the vast, largely unpatrolled desert region will also be high on the docket, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Shalgham told The Associated Press.

While U.S. forces have been training local troops in Mauritania and Mali in recent months - with plans to extend the US$7 million program to Niger and Chad - the region should find its own solutions to instability, Shalgham said.

Foreign forces only "complicate" matters, he said.

The bloc, known as Censad, was established in Libya in 1998 with the aim of creating what Gadhafi termed "The United States of Africa."

It will be Gadhafi’s first summit in West Africa since disavowing weapons of mass destruction programs last year, prompting warming relations with the West.

Gadhafi has long looked southward from Libya, apparently seeking to bolster a poor international image by playing an active role in the world’s poorest region.

Beside Gadhafi, Bashir, Deby and Mali President Amadou Tandja, leaders from Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria are among those scheduled to begin arriving Friday in the capital, Bamako.

Sudanese Arab tribal militia, allegedly backed by government forces, have attacked dozens of villages of black Africans, killing thousands and driving more than 1 million of them into flight.

Tens of thousands have taken refuge in Chad, where aid agencies say they don’t have the resources to care for them.

Chad said Sunday that the Sudanese militia had crossed the border last week and clashed with the Chadian army, which killed dozens of them. He said Chad would no longer tolerate such incursions.

Some U.N. officials and human rights groups have called the campaign "ethnic cleansing," saying it is intended to drive the black Africans from the region and replace them with Arab tribes.

Sudan has denied any such campaign, saying its troops and the militia are merely fighting autonomy-seeking rebels.

The Sahel, which means coast in Arabic, is the semi-desert region south of the Sahara that runs west to east from the Cape Verde Islands off Senegal to Ethiopia.

The bloc includes Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sudan , Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia.

The group’s last summit took place in March 2003 in Niamey, Niger.

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