Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press
MALABO, Equatorial Guinea — Foreign military intervention has caused massive suffering in Africa, the African Union's current chairman said Thursday in a message that is being seen as a jab at the NATO airstrikes in Libya.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who is the president of Equatorial Guinea, also blamed outside "agents" for sparking pro-democracy demonstrations in countries across Africa including his own.
"The intervention for human rights are nowadays causing a massive scourge," he said at the opening of the AU's biannual summit being held in this capital, located on an island off the western coast of Africa. "The uncounted number of victims, among them women and children, displaced people and the destruction of economic infrastructure does not justify such interventions. Instead of providing solutions to problems we are complicating and worsening world conflicts."
Obiang did not specifically mention Libya, but the AU has come out forcefully against the bombardment that is threatening to topple Moammar Gadhafi, whose grip on power was thought to be absolute.
His fall would be discomforting for the other entrenched rulers in Africa, including Obiang, who has maintained total control of state institutions in Equatorial Guinea since his uncle was overthrown and killed in a coup 32 years ago.
Obiang's country is considered among the most undemocratic in the world, one that has never had elections deemed free and fair, and where opponents to the regime are systematically tortured, according to Human Rights Watch and the report of the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Speaking about the popular uprisings in North Africa, Obiang said the youth are right to protest when their cause is "just and necessary," but added that outside "agents" are in some cases attempting to manipulate public sentiment in order to cause unrest.
"I draw attention here to those agents accustomed to manipulating the innocence and the good faith of our youth and inexperienced population to unnecessarily cause sterile revolutions," he said in Spanish, the national language of Equatorial Guinea. "This is the case of my country, Equatorial Guinea, which is victimized by a systematic campaign of misinformation by these agents."
The wave of popular protest that has swept across the northern part of the continent has so far not spread dramatically south, largely because leaders like Obiang have clamped down at the slightest sign of dissent.
In Malabo, reporters were told by the minister of information that state TV would not be discussing the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya because they do not have correspondents in those countries who can ascertain if the information being reported by the international media is correct.
In Zimbabwe where summit attendee Robert Mugabe has been in power for 31 years, even watching video footage of those uprisings can lead to treason charges punishable by death.
And in Cameroon, where 77-year-old President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, the government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter after citizens used the site to organize a "Drive Out Biya" march.
Traditionally the AU has chosen to support its leaders at the expense of the people they govern, but the recent conflict in Ivory Coast may have marked a turning point.
An African Union panel charged with finding a solution to the conflict initially backed Laurent Gbagbo, the country's outgoing president who lost last year's presidential election and took his country to the brink of civil war in an effort to stay in office.
Under immense international pressure, however, the panel that included Obiang eventually called for Gbagbo to step down.
The same evolution may be in the works on Libya. The ad hoc committee charged with dealing with the crisis has issued numerous statements supporting Gadhafi and advocating for talks between the Libyan leader and the rebels attempting to overthrow him.
The proposal was rejected outright by the rebels and the international community, which views Gadhafi as the problem and not a part of the solution.
On Sunday, the committee reversed course, however, saying they welcomed Gadhafi's decision to not be part of the negotiation process.
In a statement issued Thursday, the committee said it had met in Malabo and agreed on a set of proposals to help Libya emerge from the crisis. It said the proposals would be submitted to the AU assembly for their support.
"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," said Britain's Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham who attended the first part of the conference.
He said he had met with many 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.
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