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AU summit opens without Gadhafi, but in his shadow

By Rukmini Callimachi

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 29 2011 9:40 a.m. MDT

Local security agents sit on a wall outside the conference center in Sipopo, a luxury complex constructed to host the upcoming 17th African Union Summit, outside Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. The complex includes a mile-long man-made beach, a high-end hotel and spa, a golf course, conference center, and 52 luxury sea-side villas. According to Human Rights Watch, the government of this tiny oil-rich central African nation spent more than $830 million on the project, while most of the country's population lives in poverty.

Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea — Organizers printed Moammar Gadhafi's portrait and mounted it on one of the flags decorating the road to the African Union summit venue back when he was expected to rule for life.

Now his proud face flaps incongruously in the wind here, the only sign of a man who has long dominated this gathering of African leaders but who is now mired in Libya's civil war.

It's a jolting image that reminds delegates of how much has changed on the continent in the past six months, and also underlines the organization's ambivalence toward one of its most prominent members.

The summit is scheduled to open Thursday without the Libyan leader. It's fitting, however, that in order to reach the conference hall, delegates will need to pass under his defiant gaze.

Even though Gadhafi is not in attendance, the problem he poses looms large for the 53-nation body.

"There is a very strong number of countries in the African Union who believe that Gadhafi's time is up and that he should go, and there are some who — to a greater or lesser extent — do not share that view," Britain's International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told reporters in London before heading to the talks.

Diplomats from all over the world are descending on Malabo, the capital of this minuscule nation located on an island off the western edge of Africa, in an effort to persuade Gadhafi's peers to force him from power.

Gadhafi inspires deeply conflicted emotions on a continent where numerous strongmen still cling to power, including several who came to office in coups backed by Gadhafi as well as others whose regimes could be destabilized if the wave of popular unrest spreads south.

Compared to the rest of the world, the African Union has been one of the most conciliatory voices toward Gadhafi, condemning NATO airstrikes even as evidence mounted that Gadhafi's military was carrying out massacres of civilians.

Yet even in the hours since delegates began arriving in Malabo, the mood appears to be shifting and old alliances are beginning to erode.

On Wednesday in nearby Gabon, President Ali Bongo, whose father converted from Christianity to Islam in an effort to court Gadhafi's favor, held a news conference to urge Gadhafi to go.

"For the good of his people, for the good of his country as well as Africa, it would be good if he were to choose of his own volition — and I do mean of his own volition — to step down," Bongo said.

Britain's Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham said that he has met with a majority of the foreign ministers of the 53 member nations attending the conference, and found that even those that were previously reluctant to call for Gadhafi's ouster are now privately agreeing that he should go.

"I believe there is certainly a change in the whole perception of Gadhafi. We are in a very different position to the one we were in just five, six weeks ago. Then we were talking about a stalemate. Now there's no stalemate. Gadhafi is losing his grip," Bellingham said.

"Despite the fact that the Libyan flag is flying on the access road to the conference center, there has been a big turnaround," said Britain's Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham.

Gadhafi, who used Libya's oil wealth to fund the transformation of the old Organization of African Unity into the African Union in 2002, has dominated the AU summit stage for years, becoming its chairman in 2009.

He was a longtime proponent of the United States of Africa, a proposal he shared with Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, who made a point of inviting Gadhafi to his inauguration as well as to the opening of a monument in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

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