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World Bank President Cautious on Debt Relief

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz says he is optimistic that technical problems blocking implementation of a debt relief program for poor countries in Africa can be worked out.

The $40-billion debt relief program, adopted in July by the world's seven wealthiest nations, would eliminate the foreign debt of some of the poorest countries in Africa.

Implementation of the plan has been held up over concern by some World Bank member countries that rich countries will reduce their contribution to the Bank's lending arm, as they cancel debts.

Mr. Wolfowitz says he hopes the problem will be resolved over the next few days, during the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"We've been working with all the parties to move this forward," he said. "We're committed to getting it done, and we expect real progress at these meetings."

The debt relief plan was a central achievement of the summit of the world's richest countries and Russia at Gleneagles, Scotland, last July.

Mr. Wolfowitz, the former Number Two in the U.S. Defense Department, succeeded James Wolfensohn as World Bank president in June.

At Thursday's news conference, Mr. Wolfowitz said economic development in Africa will remain the bank's top priority.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, which has slipped backwards, roughly half of the 600 million people live on less than $1 a day, not just poverty, but extreme poverty," said Mr. Wolfowitz.

The World Bank is the world's largest development institution, disbursing annually over $25 billion in loans and grants. Mr. Wolfowitz has pledged to make the bank more efficient and make sure that aid actually reaches the poorest people.