POWELL opens Africa trip

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAMAKO, Mali. (AP) _ Opening a four-nation African tour, Secretary of State Colin Powell conveyed the Bush administration's deep interest in the continent and promised Wednesday to find a ``right balance'' for U.S. participation in humanitarian missions.

Powell voiced support continued limited U.S. training of African peacekeeping troops such as those used in Sierra Leone.

He told reporters aboard his plane that he knows his views are not always the same as those of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been looking for opportunities to scale back U.S. commitments overseas.

``We're always tugging at this. ... But it's not a fight,'' Powell said.

Powell is visiting Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

After arriving at the airport in Bamako, Mali's capital, Powell's motorcade passed a busy outdoor market, teeming with shoppers, many women balancing large baskets on their heads.

He told reporters the tour ``gives me a chance to learn on the ground what's really going on.''

The primary theme was the global battle against AIDS and other infectious diseases.

But Powell said he also plans to discuss a range of political and economic issues in meetings with the region's leaders.

``Obviously, I'm moved by the fact that I'm the first African American secretary of state to visit Africa,'' Powell said. Powell, who was traveling with his wife, Alma, said the experience brought an ``emotional twinge''

But Powell noted that he had also visited Africa as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the first Bush administration.

``I'm pleased to be able to represent the foreign policy interests of the United States and of the new Bush administration to Africa to show that we have an interest in Africa. The president has a deep interest in Africa,'' he said.

``We realize the importance of the continent, the opportunities in the continent and especially the problems that the continent is facing.''

As to his first stop, Powell paid tribute to the West African nation as ``a successful democracy.''

Powell was meeting with Mali's president, Alpha Oumar Konare, and planned to tour a malaria research center jointly financed by Mali and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

He also was to visit on Thursday a center where peacekeeping forces headed for Sierra Leone are being trained, including by some U.S. advisers.

``The president is supportive of the focused relief effort which is under way to train the remaining Nigerian battalions,'' Powell said.

He said the United States had an obligation to support such efforts ``where there are nations willing to commit those units to peacekeeping and peacemaking operations.''

Noting that he and Rumsfeld didn't always agree, Powell said, ``Secretary Rumsfeld is always looking for opportunities to back off on some of the overseas commitment that we have.

``And that's his job, the president wants to do that. But we have to balance it against our responsibilities. ...

``It's just trying to find the right balance between getting too committed and not getting committed enough,'' Powell added.

Powell said he saw ``nothing on the horizon'' that might suggest the need for U.S. combat troops on the continent.

He noted that, in the Sierre Leone conflict, the United Nations has assembled a force of 17,500 troops. Of that, the only U.S. role is ``a few liaison and training'' personnel, Powell said.

On other subjects, Powell:

_Predicted that the administration would increase its political and humanitarian efforts to help victims of the long civil war in Sudan. He said he expects to discuss the conflict when he's in east Africa this weekend.

_Defended Bush's announcement of a $200 million U.S. contribution to a global $5 billion to $7 billion fund to combat AIDS _ against criticism that it was inadequate. ``I don't think America has anything to apologize for,'' he said, saying the amount was just ``seed money'' and that more would come later.

_Said he looks forward to discussing with South African President Thabo Mbeki the recent strife in neighboring Zimbabwe. ``I'd like to hear President Mbeki's assessment, and I will have my own assessment to present to him.''

Powell was last in Africa two years ago, when he joined former President Carter in helping monitor elections in Nigeria.