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Somalia, Maternal Mortality Dominate Start of AU Summit

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An African Union summit has begun in Kampala with calls for tougher action against  extremists in Somalia and piercing questions about why so many of the continent's women are dying in childbirth. The opening session heard a strong message of support from President Barack Obama.

Joy and sorrow intertwined as more than 30 heads of state assembled for the 15th African Union summit in suburban Kampala.  Opening statements hailed Africa's triumph in hosting the World Cup soccer finals, and mourned the loss of 76 fans killed by suicide bombers while watching the finals on TV.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pleaded for Africa to unite in a strong military response to Islamic militants in Somalia who claimed responsibility for the bombings.

"Who are these guys who do not respect the A.U.?  Where do their loyalties lie?  Whose interests are they serving?  These terrorists can be and should be defeated.  Let us now act in concert and sweep them out of Africa.  Let them go back to Asia and Middle East, where I understand many of them come from," he said.

A decision expected at the end of the summit will give broad authority to the A.U. peacekeeping mission AMISOM to react forcefully against the al-Qaida linked Somali militant group al-Shabab.  The 6,000 member force is made up exclusively of Ugandan and Burundian troops.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking on behalf of President Barack Obama, pledged strong American support of AMISOM and the Kampala bomb probe. "My nation is also among many working to bring the perpetrators of these vicious acts to justice.  The United States recognizes that ending the threat of al-Shabab to the world will take more than just law enforcement.  That is why we are working closely with the A.U. to support the African Union mission in Somalia," he said.

The summit also featured a frank examination of Africa's poor record in the field of healthcare for women and children.  President Museveni joined some of Africa's most powerful women in a panel discussion led by BBC television news anchor Zeinab Badawi.

Renowned recording artist and panel member Yvonne Chaka Chaka took the opportunity to plead with all the continent's leaders.

"You are presidents because of those women and those children.  Those are the people who put you in power.  As an African woman and the mother of four sons, I need to say this Africa is for all those who live in it.  Africa has been released from the shackles of slavery, and we have our freedom.  And what does freedom mean?  Freedom means health, education, water, sanitation.  Health is an investment," she said.

A.U. Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas pleaded with heads of states to find the resources to bring Africa up to par with the rest of the world in caring for its mothers and young children.

"You are once again called upon to show that Africa can also provide quality service to the women and children of Africa. We have got a collective responsibility and we have to involve all our stakeholders also to take responsibility for the lives of women and children," she said.

The summit will go into closed session Monday for discussions on a variety of contentious issues.  Among them are forging a common consensus on climate change in preparation for the Cancun summit later this year, and how to proceed on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's proposal for a United States of Africa.

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