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Summit Focuses on Defining Role of New African Union - 2003-02-02

Heads of state and representatives from more than 35 African countries are gathering in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, for a two-day African Union Summit. The summit, which begins Monday, will try to address differences among the countries over the direction of the African Union.

Ethiopian dancers and flag-waving children greeted the African heads of states and representatives as they arrived in Addis Ababa amid heavy security.

The leaders face a demanding schedule Monday and Tuesday as they attempt to work out the role of the newly formed 53-member African Union.

The African Union officially came into being last July during a summit in Durban, South Africa. It replaces the three decade old Organization of African Unity, an Addis Ababa-based group widely criticized as ineffectual for its inability to mediate the continent's civil wars or promote good governance among its members.

The acting chairman of the African Union Commission, Amara Essy, said the bulk of this week's talks will focus on ways to achieve financial, political, and military integration.

The AU, which is loosely modeled on the European Union, hopes to create, among other things, a standing army, a regional parliament and a central bank.

Other discussions will center on how to end the nearly five month old rebellion in Ivory Coast and the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burundi, which have continued despite numerous attempts in past years to establish cease-fires.

The African leaders are also expected to issue a joint statement urging the United States to work with the United Nations in bringing a peaceful end to the crisis in Iraq.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who currently heads the African Union, has spoken out strongly against a war in Iraq. He said such a war could potentially kill development in Africa, the world's poorest continent.

Many analysts say they are not optimistic about how much the talks can achieve. They believe reaching a consensus on any issue will be a difficult task, given Africa's immense diversity and conflicting needs.

The number of the heads of state attending this summit is not available, but it is certain that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, will be absent.

He declined to attend, citing health reasons. The last time Mr. Mubarak was in Addis Ababa, in 1995, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Sudan-based militants.