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BUSH, South African President Mbeki meet

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush met Tuesday with South African President Thabo Mbeki to talk about the AIDS scourge that is ravaging Africa _ and defend themselves against accusations of lackluster response. ``The president is concerned, as am I,'' Bush said.

The two leaders defended their positions on AIDS even as they outlined an agenda for talks that lacked direct reference to the disease. After their meeting, the two leaders shared lunch, and Mbeki left without speaking to reporters.

Bush and Mbeki issued a joint statement in support of an international AIDS trust fund, saying extra efforts to address HIV/AIDS and other diseases are urgently needed.

``We renewed our commitment to working together against (the diseases) and the conditions that enable the diseases to proliferate,'' the statement said. They also expressed support for Mbeki's proposal to eliminate poverty and war on the African continent as a means of getting at the root causes of AIDS.

``If you're talking about an African recovery, you cannot but discuss AIDS and really confront it,'' Mbeki said. ``We have to respond in a comprehensive way. ... In many instances, these are diseases which are not only caused by poverty, some of them, but also cause poverty.''

Of allegations that he has not done enough to address the spread of AIDS in his country, Mbeki said: ``People must look at what we're doing in South Africa, not their perception of what they think we're doing. I don't think, on the basis of facts, that an accusation like that can be sustained. It cannot.''

Bush called the African AIDS pandemic ``an incredibly important part'' of U.S.-South African relations, and said the United States would press other nations, particularly those in Europe, to put more money into a global AIDS fund.

Bush and Mbeki met in the Oval Office, their first session since Bush took office earlier this year. The two met in Texas in May 2000, while Bush was governor. Mbeki came to Washington without stopping in New York, where a U.N. conference on AIDS is under way.

On Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations special session on AIDS and gave an open-ended promise that the United States would donate more money to a global fund to fight the disease. The fund, launched with $200 million in U.S. seed money, contained about $600 million after a few more countries chipped in this week.

Mbeki did not attend the session, and his absence was notable. South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV or AIDS _ 4.7 million, about 11 percent of South Africa's 45 million citizens.

Mbeki himself was embroiled in controversy when he convened a panel of scientists to determine whether there is a link between HIV and AIDS. He also questioned the need for HIV testing.

``South Africa is a heavyweight among developing countries. There are high expectations that are not being met by the Mbeki administration,'' said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a U.S.-based advocacy group.

But it seemed unlikely that Bush would challenge Mbeki's AIDS policies. After meeting with Mbeki in South Africa last month, Powell said he felt confident that Mbeki was ``fully seized with the problem, doing everything possible'' to halt the epidemic.

And while Mbeki backed off his earlier positions on the AIDS scourge, he has not publicly defined a leadership role for himself. Bush could provide the embattled South African with a bit of a comfort zone.

``Here, the Bush administration is reluctant to commit significant resources, so it's almost helpful to them to have an African government that is providing ambiguous signals at best, that is not demanding the U.S. do more,'' Booker said.

American University economist George Ayittey said Bush would be able to take Mbeki to task only if Bush ``acknowledges that the U.S. itself has a weak position'' on combatting AIDS. But, he said, Bush could stress that African leaders must better focus on controlling the spread of the disease.
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