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Libya's Gadhafi Takes AU Reins, Promises Union Government

Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi took over the chairmanship of the African Union on Monday, vowing to create a continental government despite strong opposition among other heads of state. Summit leaders at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa hailed the newest member of their exclusive club, a Muslim cleric selected days ago as Somalia's president.

Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed was warmly applauded at the summit's opening ceremonies, although he faces a difficult struggle to bring order to a nation considered a failed state for more than a decade.

But Somalia is only one of many vexing issues facing this 12th gathering of Africa's leaders. There is violent political unrest in Madagascar on the heels of recent military coups in Mauritania and Guinea, reminiscent of the days when power changed hands at the point of a gun. And there is an expectation that one of their own, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, might soon be indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court.

Moreover, many summit leaders were less than enthusiastic that Libya's strongman Moammar Gadhafi was elected as AU chairman. Mr. Gadhafi, Africa's second longest serving ruler, took over from Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who had been the third consecutive democratically-elected leader to hold the post.

Mr. Gadhafi immediately pledged to work for establishment of a union government, an idea dismissed by his predecessor a day earlier.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the annual Addis Ababa summit for a third year in a row. He told reporters that members of the joint AU/U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur would stay in the town of Muhajiriya, despite a Sudanese request that they leave.

"I urge maximum restraint on President Bashir and have urged the JEM [Justice and Equality Movement] rebels to withdraw from the city to protect innocent civilians," said Ban Ki-moon. "U.N. peacekeeping forces in the city are there to protect the 15,000 IDPs, internally displaced persons, as per our mandate. We will continue to do our duty there, despite calls for the U.N. withdrawal by the Sudanese government."

The U.N. chief offered a cautious endorsement of the formation of a national unity government in Zimbabwe.

"While I have welcomed this decision of Mr. Tsvangirai and the MDC [the Movement for Democratic Change] to join this national unity government, I still believe this is an imperfect situation and I have urged President Mugabe to build on this new development situation and try to make progress as soon as possible," he said.

Mr. Ban told reporters he had called on President Robert Mugabe during a meeting to uphold human rights and democratic freedoms, and promote national reconciliation - including the release of all prisoners arrested during the past few months. Zimbabwean representatives at the summit refused to comment on Mr. Mugabe's meeting with the U.N. chief.

Mr. Ban also said he was meeting with the new Somali President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and said his election had given hope that Somalia's political process could move forward after 18 years without a functioning government.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters he had received firm pledges from Burundi and Uganda that each would send an additional battalion to join the AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] peacekeeping mission in Somalia by the end of this month. That would bring the force up to a strength of more than 5,000 troops out of the authorized 8,000. Lamamra hinted he might have more troop pledges to announce before the summit adjourns on Tuesday.