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African conflicts shaping Bush trip

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - President Bush's first stop on his Africa trip next week will bring him near several vicious, interlocking West African wars marked by atrocities against civilians, smuggled arms and gems, mercenaries, child soldiers and a flood of refugees.

Senegal, the first of five nations Bush will visit, is a relatively tranquil and prosperous oasis in turbulent West Africa and serves as a pillar of democracy on the continent.

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But even this former French colony has seen fighting in recent years between the army and regional separatists, and American tourists are warned to avoid political demonstrations that sometimes turn violent.

West Africa's spreading war contagion is one reason why Bush - besides trumpeting the spread of democracy, the fight against AIDS and Africa's economic potential - may deploy an American peacekeeping force to Liberia and will spend part of his first trip to Africa as president conferring with the continent's leaders about how to overcome and prevent conflicts, officials say.

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"You can't build an HIV-AIDS clinic, you can't protect the landscape, you can't encourage African entrepreneurs if there's a shooting war going on," said Walter Kansteiner, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Over the past dozen years, civil wars or rebellions have racked not only Liberia, but also nearby Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Unless Liberia stabilizes, some experts fear, the conflict could spread, spilling over borders into Guinea-Bissau and threatening neighboring Burkina Faso and even Ghana, a nation held up as a progressive model.

"It's the whole sub-region. What's going on in Liberia could overflow," said one Africa expert on Capitol Hill.

And trouble anywhere in this region has a serious impact on Nigeria, the oil-rich regional giant that is looked on to keep peace in the area, said Susan Rice, Kansteiner's predecessor under President Bill Clinton. She calls the grouping of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Guinea an "arc of conflict."

U.S. officials assign Liberian President Charles Taylor particular blame for the region's web of crises, though yesterday he offered to resign once peacekeeping forces are on the ground.

"Charles Taylor is ... not just a problem for Liberia; he's a problem for the region. One of the reasons that [Bush] is concerned about the situation in Liberia is that Charles Taylor has been a source of insurrection and insurgency in surrounding countries," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said Thursday.

The head of government since 1996, when he emerged victorious after a seven-year civil war, Taylor has stayed in power through brutal intimidation of Liberians while backing rebellions in neighboring Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, according to U.S. officials and regional experts.

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In Sierra Leone, he teamed with the Revolutionary United Front, providing an outlet through Liberia for diamonds from rebel-held territory that have been sold to arms dealers and, according to some reports, terrorist groups. A United Nations-backed international tribunal recently charged him as one of those bearing greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's civil war - crimes that included extermination, murder, hostage-taking, rape and sexual slavery.

He has also waged what Human Rights Watch called a "virtual proxy war" in the western Ivory Coast. There, as in Liberia and Sierra Leone, war has displaced thousands of civilians.

Taylor doesn't deserve all the blame for the suffering in a region where arms and mercenaries ebb and flow across porous borders, human-rights groups say. Both the Ivory Coast and Guinea have backed rebellions against Taylor in Liberia that have brought their own toll of human-rights abuses and uprooted civilians.

"You have reciprocal interventions, but the center of the storm is Charles Taylor," said Chester Crocker, President Ronald Reagan's top official on Africa, who now teaches at Georgetown University.

The non-government International Crisis Group, which specializes in conflict resolution, warned in April that "if nothing is done now to address the spread of Liberia's conflict, there will be further large-scale violence along much of the West African coastline."

Senior Bush administration officials say such conflicts drive away investors and prevent economic development, reinforcing the regional poverty that, in turn, helps to precipitate new conflicts.

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"Capital is a coward. It flees war. It flees disease. It won't go near corruption. It goes where risk is understood," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Corporate Council on Africa on June 27.

The conflicts also lead to the collapse of government institutions, creating failed states. "We've also recognized since 9/11 that one wants to be careful about permitting conditions of failed states to create conditions in which there is so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism," said Rice.

U.S. officials say parts of the continent stand poised to take off economically, benefiting from freer world trade, government reforms and incentives offered by the United States. In coming years, trade between the United States and the continent will grow to the point where "our children and grandchildren are much more likely to have serious business, financial, political and commercial links to Africa," Kansteiner said at a Brookings Institution briefing.

Not the least of this trade will be in oil and gas. Searches off the coast of Sierra Leone have yet to yield commercially significant quantities of oil, but reserves being discovered in Nigeria and Angola are "huge," a senior administration official said. Both countries sit close to the "arc of conflict."


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