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African Union urges speedy transition in coup-wracked Mali

By Helen Vesperini

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) - African leaders on Saturday called for a speedier political transition in Mali where the interim government is struggling to tackle Islamist militants holding the vast desert north.

The leaders of Sudan and South Sudan, grappling with long-running disputes over oil and their common border, were seen to shake hands after private talks, their first meeting since fighting between the two countries ended.

The African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) called for the "effective dissolution" of Mali's former junta and an end to their "unacceptable interference" in the transitional process.

It called on the interim government "to start necessary consultations with political parties and civil society groups to form a larger government of national unity," Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said.

"The situation in Mali is one of the most serious situations our continent is confronted with," African Union chairman Jean Ping told reporters.

The crisis "imperils the very existence of Mali as a nation", he added.

Northern Mali has been taken over by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in the aftermath of a March military coup in the capital Bamako in the south, raising fears of a new regional haven for extremists.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra brief journalists on the Council's conclusions late Saturday.

It wanted "an end to the unacceptable interference by the military junta and its civilian supporters in the transitional process and the effective dissolution" of the former junta, he said.

The African Union and the west African regional bloc ECOWAS were readying sanctions on those hampering the transition and a list of the individuals was being drawn up, Lamamra added.

Mali's territorial integrity was not up for discussion, Lamamra said, underscoring "Africa's determination to spare no effort to preserve it."

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, currently chairman of the AU Peace and Security Council, said the Council had also condemned the acts of the Islamists in the north.

It "condemns the aim of the terrorist groups to turn northern Mali into a sanctuary and a coordination centre for terrorist groups on the continent," he said.

ECOWAS has already said it is ready to send a 3,300-troop force to help restore order in Mali if it has UN backing.

Ping reported progress on the unresolved conflict between Sudan and South Sudan -- the other issue on Saturday's agenda -- even if the AU-backed peace talks between the two countries had been "slow and maybe even a little uneven".

But an AFP reporter said Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and his South Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir had shaken hands after an hour of talks Saturday night at a hotel in the Ethiopian capital.

Both the African Union and the UN have passed resolutions urging the rivals to resolve their differences over security, oil and their common border by August 2.

But talks have dragged on in recent weeks, and although the two countries agreed to a cessation of hostilities at the last round of talks, no concrete deals have been forged.

South Sudan has only just celebrated the first anniversary of its independence.

Among other flashpoints on the continent, Ping cited the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where a group of army mutineers known as M23 recently seized a string of small towns from the regular army.

Leaders of the Great Lakes region will discuss the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at a meeting on Sunday,

Lamamra did not say how many leaders would attend, but sources have told AFP that both DR Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame were expected in Addis Ababa for the talks.

If the two presidents do meet face to face, it will be their first since high-ranking Rwandan officials were accused by the UN of backing the M23 Tutsi rebels, who have been fighting DR Congo troops in the east since April.

Rwanda has repeatedly denied the charges.

Rwanda in turn has accused Kinshasa of renewing cooperation with Rwandan Hutu rebels based in eastern DRC since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The African Union meeting opened Saturday with the spotlight on continental flashpoints ahead of a renewed efforts to settle who will head the bloc's executive arm.

The last AU summit in January failed to agree on a chair for the AU Commission after South Africa's Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma challenged the incumbent, Gabon's Jean Ping.

The leaders agreed Ping should stay on for a further six months, until the issued was resolved at this summit.

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