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UN's Ban to Go to Kenya, Warns African Leaders of Impending Catastrophe

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dominated day one of the African Union summit, warning of a possible catastrophe in Kenya and saying he would go to Nairobi to support mediation efforts aimed at ending the country's ethnic violence. From summit headquarters in Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports Mr. Ban's pointed comments on several East African hotspots overshadowed the election of a new AU president, and a host of events on the summit sidelines.

Speaking as news was coming in about the killing of a second Kenyan member of parliament, Secretary-General Ban called recent developments "alarming", and warned that if left unchecked, the situation could spin out of control.

"More than 800 people have already lost their lives in the increasingly ethnic clashes triggered by the aftermath of recent elections," Ban said. "Violence continues, threatening to escalate to catastrophic levels. Kenyan leaders, President Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga in particular, have a special responsibility to do everything possible to resolve the sources of the crisis peacefully."

Speaking to an audience that included an estimated 40 African heads of state, including Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, Mr. Ban urged them to encourage Kenya's leaders to calm the violence and resolve their differences that erupted into ethnic cleansing in the wake of December's election.

After his speech, the U.N. chief held a closed meeting with Mr. Kibaki, and told reporters he would fly to Nairobi Friday to meet opposition leader Raila Odinga, and to support efforts to end the ethnic violence.

Underlining the urgency of the matter, the secretary-general issued a personal appeal to all Kenyans.

"I call on the Kenyan people, stop the killings and end the violence now, before it is too late," he said.

Mr. Ban also urged the leaders of Sudan and Chad to exercise restraint amid word from Chadian authorities that Sudanese troops are advancing on the capital, N'Djamena.

On a related matter, the secretary-general told reporters he is encouraged by discussions on Darfur over the past few days, involving United Nations, African Union and senior Sudanese government officials. But he suggested that deployment of a robust U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission is still being delayed by Sudanese obstacles, as well as by a lack of troops and military assets for the force.

"Full cooperation of the government of Sudan is critical," Ban said. "Likewise, timely provision of key assets such as helicopters and heavy transport equipment is essential. The people of Darfur depend on the police and troop contributing countries assembled here today to speed up the required preparations and arrive in the theater of operations as soon as possible."

Turning to another east African regional trouble spot, Mr. Ban expressed deep concern about the latest restrictions imposed by Eritrea on U.N. peacekeepers on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border. The chief of the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace force, known as UNMEE, told the Security Council last week that the mission had not been able to obtain fresh fuel supplies in Eritrea since the beginning of December.

Mr. Ban called the fuel restriction 'unacceptable'.

"This is having a crippling effect on the ability of the mission to discharge its mandate," he said. "I appeal to the government of Eritrea to life all restrictions that affect the activities of the peacekeeping mission."

In other summit news, Tanzania was elected to the African Union's rotating presidency. After the vote, Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete said Africa must take responsibility for its problems, rather than looking to external forces. Speaking in Swahili, he said, 'sometimes we are ashamed of hearing about conflicts in Africa all the time. We should admit the responsibility is ours'.

Friday, summit leaders take up a report by an independent audit panel that sharply criticized the organization's leadership. Among other things, the 220-page report concluded that the relationship between the AU Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare and other commissioners was dysfunctional,

At the same time, leaders will be deciding whether to hold elections to replace Mr. Konare and other members of the commission. In a speech to AU foreign ministers, Konare said he would not run for re-election, but diplomats say there is a move to postpone the voting.