AU ready to send peacekeepers to DR Congo

The African Union said Sunday it is ready to send peacekeeping troops to the restive eastern DR Congo, as leaders met at a biannual summit to discuss trouble spots and to vote for the bloc's top job.

AU Commission chairman Jean Ping told African leaders at the opening of the two-day summit that the AU was "prepared to contribute to the establishment of a regional force to put an end to the activities of armed groups," in DR Congo.

No further details about the potential force were given at the meeting, attended by both DR Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, who rejects accusations by UN experts and Kinshasa he supports the mutiny by Congolese troops.

"The violence must end immediately, countries of the region ought to respect principle of non-interference," said UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson.

The renewed violence in the mineral-rich eastern DR Congo is a key focus of the summit as well as conflict elsewhere on the continent, including instability in Mali, and the ongoing crisis between Sudan and South Sudan.

Ping described the crisis in Mali -- where authorities are struggling to tackle Islamist militants who control the vast desert north -- as "one of the most serious threats to security and stability of the continent".

"The situation in the north of Mali... is alarming and is a threat to the region and beyond," Eliasson added.

However, signs of improvement were seen in the dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, following fierce battles in April and March along their contested oil-rich border.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir of South Sudan shook hands warmly, following their first face-to-face talks on Saturday since the border fighting took them to the brink of all-out war.

Ping noted "with satisfaction the end to the fighting and advances made recently" in talks between Juba and Khartoum, who have been holding months of slow-moving AU-led talks to resolve a raft of contentious issues.

"Their people desperately hope for security and prosperity, we have a common duty not to shatter their hopes," Eliasson said.

For once, Ping noted positive changes in war-torn Somalia, praising the nations who had sent troops to battle the Al-Qaeda linked Shebab, including Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda in the 17,000-strong AU force, as well as Ethiopia.

"The prospects for peace have never looked so encouraging," said Ping.

However, the hotly contested AU leadership race is expected to dominate later proceedings.

South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is challenging Gabon's Ping, the current commission chairman, after neither won the required two-thirds of the vote at the last summit six months ago, leaving Ping in the post.

Benin's president and current AU chairman Thomas Boni Yayi warned that another failure to agree on a new head would damage the reputation of the 54-member body.

"The current situation cannot drag on without undermining the running of the African Union and tarnishing its image," Yayi told the summit.

Newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called on countries to "work towards electing a chairman... on the basis of a consensus among all AU countries."

Analysts say unwritten tradition is that continental powerhouses do not run for the post -- leaving smaller nations to take the job -- and that South Africa's decision to override this rule has sparked bad feeling.

However, Dlamini-Zuma played down concerns the vote could divide the AU.

"I don't think the continent will be polarised," she said. "Whoever will be elected will make sure they work with everybody, irrespective of where and who they voted for."

If no chair is selected at this summit, Ping -- who has held the post since 2008 -- could legally be asked to stay on as leader until the next summit in January 2013.

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