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African leaders approve plan to strengthen Union

888Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi delivers a speech during the opening of the African Union (AU) summit in Sirte, about 600 km east of Tripoli, July 1, 2009.

African leaders approve plan to strengthen Union

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) – African heads of state on Friday approved a plan to enhance the powers of the African Union and give it a role in coordinating defence policy and trade negotiations, a participant in the talks said.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has led a drive to turn the AU into a bloc along the lines of the European Union and had pushed hard for the adoption of the plan at a summit of African leaders he is hosting this week.

A document enhancing the powers of the African Union’s executive body was approved at about 4 a.m. (0200 GMT) after many hours of discussions at the summit, Benin’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marie Ehouzou, told reporters.

“We haven given agreement for the coordination of foreign affairs and defence,” he said.

“The states are ready to cede a little bit a part of their sovereignty for the benefit of the (Union).”

The document has to be ratified by member states’ parliaments before it comes into force.

According to a copy of the document seen by Reuters, the AU’s executive body will:

* “Coordinate the positions of the member states of the AU during international negotiations.”

* “Coordinate the implementation of a common African policy on defence and security as well as strategy and the mobilisation of the necessary resources for the defence of the continent.”

* “Represent the common interests of the member states of the Union and speak in their name in international forums on international trade.”

Created in 1999 in the same Libyan city where this week’s summit was held, the 53-member AU was designed to fight poverty and instability by removing barriers to trade and allowing African states to speak with a single voice.

It issues political declarations and oversees peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Sudan’s Darfur region. It has not though lived up to the ambitions of some of its founders who wanted it to develop into an EU-style bloc.

Customs tariffs, border restrictions and poor transport links continue to restrict trade between African states.

Most African states back economic integration but some are sceptical about a stronger political role for the AU because they are not prepared to loosen their control over defence and foreign policy.

One diplomat at the summit said the document was vague about what real new powers the reformed body would have.

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