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Controversy, Possible Somalia Breakthrough Mark AU Summit

The 13th African Union summit opens Wednesday in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte, birthplace of the continent's longest serving leader, host Moammar Gadhafi. The pre-summit buzz is all about who is attending, as well as how many, and which African leaders may stay away.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan will be there in defiance of an ICC war crimes indictment, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Brazil's President Lula da Silva are also on the guest list. Talk on the street is that North Korea is  sending an observer delegation. But perhaps the biggest news is that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may make an appearance.

The 81-year-old Egyptian leader has not been to a gathering of African leaders since he escaped an assassination attempt during a summit of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa in 1995.

VOA was unable to obtain a visa to attend, but diplomats and journalists who did say the summit site is taking on a festival atmosphere. The pre-summit chatter is dominated by the big name guest list.

The last summit in February drew only 21 heads of state to see Moammar Gadhafi sworn in. There was concern the turnout this time might be no better. But with Mr. Gadhafi talking about ramming through some of his controversial proposals for a United States of Africa, many would-be stay-at-homes may show up after all.

Summit sideline events have already produced an apparent breakthrough, this one on Somalia. Reporters in Sirte say IGAD, the regional grouping of East African countries will ask the summit to change the weak AU peacekeeping mission AMISOM to a robust fighting force.

IGAD, which comprises six East African countries is said to be looking at reversing an earlier ruling that prohibited Somalia's neighbors from sending troops to AMISOM. Two IGAD powers, Ethiopia and Kenya border Somalia, and are being urged in many quarters to play a more significant role in helping their neighbor.

Kenneth Mpysi of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa says the summit come none too soon for Somalia, the Horn of Africa nation whose future hangs by a thread.

"I think IGAD will push the African Union to continue and strengthen its role in terms of political will from the wider body, now we might be seeing increased political will as the situation aggravates. So Somalia might be one of the areas where we might see something significant coming out of it, particularly because there is this push from IGAD," he said.

Other security issues slated to receive summit attention include the recent political troubles in Niger, and unconstitutional changes of government or attempted coups in Madagascar, Mauritania, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

Also on the agenda will be an attempt by some member states to express the continent's unified opposition to the war crimes indictment against Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The pending ICC (International Criminal Court) indictments were a hot topic at the last meeting in February. But an attempt to forge a consensus failed at a pre-summit session in Addis Ababa last month, when only a handful of countries supported a Libyan and Sudanese backed initiative to withdraw in unison from the ICC's founding agreement.

The three-day Sirte summit begins with an public session Wednesday, and closes with another open meeting Friday.

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