Gabon's envoy to the African Union has rejected what he calls ?malicious rumors? suggesting that his country is withdrawing support for Jean Ping's bid for reelection as AU Commission chairman. Ping is facing a tough challenge from southern Africa.

Gabon's AU Ambassador Andre William Anguile held a rare news conference to express full support for Chairman Ping's reelection campaign.  He dismissed reports that the former Gabonese foreign minister might not seek a second term in the job he has held for the past four years.

"Some African and international media organizations have recently been spreading false and misleading information, suggesting Jean Ping may withdraw his candidacy as chairperson of the African Union Commission.  These same sources have further circulated rumors that the chairperson does not enjoy the support of his home country, Gabon.  Nothing could be further from the truth," Anguile report.

South Africa has nominated Home Minister and former Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for the chairmanship, marking the first challenge to a sitting chairman in the nearly 50 year history of the continental organization.

Ping's leadership has been harshly criticized during the past year over his handling of crises in Ivory Coast and Libya.  In each case, the continental organization was divided and Mr. Ping's mediation attempts were seen as largely ineffectual.

The challenge from Dlamini-Zuma has touched off a wave of speculation, much of it in the South African press.  Reports suggest that France is backing the candidacy of the French-speaking Mr. Ping, while European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton supports Dlamini Zuma.

Those reports have been widely denied.  Gabon's Ambassador Anguile declined to blame any particular news media or country for the rumors.  But he denounced reports of French support for Ping.

"Rumors purporting to establish a link between funding for candidate Jean Ping's campaign and a non-African country are false and baseless.  Such malicious innuendo is an insult to the Gabonese government, its people and the entire continent," Anguile said.

The European Union has also taken strong exception to reports of Ashton's interference in the contest.

Christophe Boulierac is spokesman for the EU mission to the Africa Union.

"Catherine Ashton has not intervened in any way whatsoever in the appointment process for the future African Union Commission chairperson and this, of course, is a purely internal matter for the member states of the African Union," Boulierac said.

Analysts say it is difficult to gauge the strength of South Africa's challenge.  The race will be decided by a secret ballot of African heads of state at the next AU summit on January 29.