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AU Summit Hails New Somali Leader; Calls on ICC to Suspend Bashir Warrants

Somalia's newly-elected President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed has been hailed at the opening ceremonies of a summit of African leaders in Addis Ababa. The session was dominated by Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi, who vowed to push ahead with his idea of a continental government, a day after it was declared effectively dead.

A Continent Ravaged By War

The summit's business meeting opened Monday with AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping painting a harsh picture of a continent split by wars, military coups, and on the brink of a disastrous recession.

Speaking in French, the continent's top diplomat warned Africans they are about to feel what he called the 'sweeping blow' of a 'systemic global economic crisis'. And with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir in the audience, he said the continental body is working to delay the pending International Criminal Court warrants charging Mr. Bashir with genocide.

He said efforts are underway to persuade the ICC to place a 12-month moratorium on any move to hand down indictments against Mr. Bashir. The Sudanese leader sat quietly at the front of the hall.

Chairman Ping also deplored Africa's apparent return to the bad old days of military coups, as evidenced by Guinea and Mauritania, the unsuccessful coup in Guinea Bissau, and the current unrest in Madagascar.

Progress Made

On the bright side, he pointed to the recent arrest of renegade Congolese General Laurent Nkunda, efforts to achieve peace in places from Burundi and the Comoros, the Central African Republic and countries of the West Africa zone.

Ping also hailed the election three days earlier of Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and asked Africa's newest head of state to stand, as the packed hall erupted in applause.

He said shades of hope are appearing in Somalia with the United Nations Security Council expressing its intention to take over the AU Somalia peacekeeping force, as well as the peace accords signed in Djibouti that led to election of Sheikh Sharif.

The Somali president's presence in the Ethiopian capital was ironic, coming two years after Ethiopian troops poured into Somalia to force him and his Islamic Courts Union from power.

Questions Surround Libya's-AU Role

The summit session was marked by contradictions. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was sworn in as AU Chairman for the coming year by the outgoing chairman, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. A day earlier, Mr. Kikwete had pronounced the Libyan leader's concept of a union government a "non-starter.

But in his acceptance speech, delivered in Arabic through an interpreter, the golden-robed Mr. Gaddafi appeared to reject the death sentence imposed on his unity government idea. He said he would consider the idea accepted unless a majority of the heads of states speak out against it. Gadhafi speaks thru an interpreter.

"We want it to be ratified, either rejected or accepted, at the next summit. If we don't have a quorum for rejection, then this means we have accepted it," he said.

Human rights groups said Mr. Gadhafi's election raiseed questions about the African Union's commitment to democratic principles. Reed Brody of the group Human Rights Watch said this breaks a string of three consecutive democratically-elected leaders at the helm of the continental body.

"The question is whether he sets a good example in terms of human rights and democracy. For the African continent. Let's remember that despite Libya's re-engagement with the international community, it's still a country that doesn't have political freedoms," he said.

Outgoing chairman Kikwete interrupted summit business Monday to pay tribute to the new U.S. President Barack Obama. As his last act in the chair, Mr. Kikwete said the African Union attaches great importance to what most people here feel will be a new chapter for U.S. Africa relations during the Obama administration.