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Gadhafi calls on Sahel and Sahara States to take lead in resolving Sudan conflict

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Moammar Gadhafi

BAMAKO, Mali, May 15, 2004 (AP) — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi Saturday called on a 20-member African regional bloc he founded to take the lead in finding a solution to the conflict in western Sudan ’s Darfur region.

Gadhafi spoke during opening remarks at the annual meeting of the Community of Sahel and Sahara States, or CENSAD, held in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

"When powers and superpowers talk about these tribes what do they know? A tribal conflict should not be taken to the U.N. Security Council," Gadhafi said of the conflict in Darfur. "If there is a tribal conflict CENSAD will resolve this problem, Sudan will resolve this problem."

Thousands of people are believed to have died since early 2003 when rebels took up arms to fight for autonomy and greater state aid in Sudan ’s western Darfur region, where more than a million people have been displaced.

U.N. officials have accused Sudan and allied Arab tribal militias of "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur.

Sudan has also been wracked by a separate, 21-year civil war that pits a predominantly animist and Christian south against the mainly Muslim and Arab north. Talks between rebels and the government have inched forward in recent months.

Speaking earlier in Bamako, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Shalgham said regional leaders aimed to ensure that the conflict in Darfur "does not get any worse."

Over a dozen leaders attended the annual meeting of the Community of Sahel and Sahara States, including Gadhafi and host president Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali. Terrorism, and conflicts in Sudan and Ivory Coast are high on the agenda.

The regional grouping added two new members Saturday -Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau - bringing the total to 20. The bloc was established by Gadhafi in 1998 with the aim of creating what he called the "United States of Africa," and stretches from the war-ravaged nations of West Africa to lawless Somalia in the east.

Chad’s foreign minister, Nagoum Yamassoun, said establishing security across the volatile region was a primary goal.

Gadhafi wants to achieve that goal by creating a common army among members, "but many heads of state here disagree" with the idea, Yamassoun told The Associated Press before the meeting got underway on Saturday.

Gadhafi has proposed to set up a similar Africa-wide army for the 53-member African Union, but most countries on the continent view the idea as unrealistic.

The Bamako meeting marks 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, seeking to bolster his international image by playing an active role in the world’s poorest region.

Also in attendance were Omar el-Bashir of Sudan , Idriss Deby of Chad and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was also in Bamako. His nation has been split in two since rebels launched a failed 2002 coup attempt.

A statement issued by the office of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s envoy to West Africa Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, who was also in Bamako, said the regional bloc "will discuss the need for a mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution."

Suspected terrorist activity in the vast, largely un-patrolled Sahara deserts will also be high on the docket, Shalgham said.

The grouping includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritria, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan , Togo, Tunisia.

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