Blair on vital Africa tour

LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair will discuss Sudan's Darfur conflict with Libyan officials and consult South African President Thabo Mbeki about Zimbabwe during a trip to Africa this week, an aide said yesterday.

Blair arrived in Libya yesterday on the first leg of a three-country African tour before he leaves office next month. He will also visit Sierra Leone and South Africa.

Other aims of the tour are to prepare for a summit of the Group of Eight industrialised countries in Germany next week, when Africa and climate change will top the agenda, and to push for a global free trade deal, aides say.

"This trip is all about showing you need to keep re-engaging with Africa," Blair's spokesman said.

Blair first visited Libya in 2004, sealing Tripoli's return to the international fold after it abandoned efforts to acquire banned weapons and agreed to pay damages for a 1988 airliner bombing over Scotland.

His spokesman said during this trip, Blair would discuss Darfur with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In South Africa later this week, Blair is expected to discuss Zimbabwe with Mbeki.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, 83, has vowed to seek another presidential term in 2008, dismissing calls to step down despite his country's economic crisis, which critics blame on his policies. Mugabe blames Britain.

Mbeki has been appointed by regional leaders as mediator between Mugabe and the opposition after a government crackdown on opposition leaders. Mbeki has said talks between the two sides are going well, but he has been criticised for being too soft on Mugabe.

In Sierra Leone, Blair is expected to win praise for sending British troops to the country in 2000 to help shore up the UN's peacekeeping operation there and hasten the end of a civil war marked by atrocities against civilians. - Reuters