Merkel arrives in Ethiopia, first leg of Africa tour

( AFP ) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Ethiopia overnight at the start of a tour of African countries that will also take in South Africa and Liberia.

Merkel, who travels in the company of Cooperation and Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, members of parliament and business leaders, was to be welcomed with military honours and have talks with the country's political leaders later Thursday.

Her first tour of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to focus on human rights, AIDS, economic cooperation and the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

She will hold talks with President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa on Friday and Saturday and will be in Liberia on Sunday.

"We must show clearly that Africa must take its future into its own hands, that corruption must be fought, that governance must improve and that money must be spent efficiently," Merkel told the weekly Die Zeit in its latest edition before her departure.

Merkel, who presides the Group of Eight most industrialized countries until the end of the year, had made Africa a top issue during a summit of G8 leaders in Germany earlier this year.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is seat of the fledgling African Union which is struggling, so far without success, to halt four years of bloodshed in neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region.

Apart from talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and President Girma Woldegiorgis, Merkel will make a speech to the African Union and hold talks with the head of the AU Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, her office said.

They will discuss the dire situation in Darfur, where 10 AU peacekeepers were killed last month, and Africa's role in a planned joint AU-EU peacekeeping mission in the civil war zone.

But their meeting will also serve to prepare for a tricky AU-EU summit in Lisbon in December, the first between the two continents in five years, which Germany is helping current EU president Portugal to organise.

A diplomatic storm has broken over Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's plans to attend the summit despite an EU travel ban with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown threatening to boycott the event.

Merkel has signalled that despite her abhorrence of Mugabe's policies which have plunged the once prosperous nation into a state of meltdown, she believes his presence should not derail the event.

Her aides said the chancellor plans to press neighbouring South Africa, the second destination on her itinerary, to try harder to use its clout in the region to force democratic change in Zimbabwe.

Merkel will land in South Africa on Thursday night for the longest leg of her tour before flying to Liberia in a nod to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's efforts to rebuild the war-scarred nation.

"The chancellor will speak very openly to (South African) President Thabo Mbeki about using his influence to bring change in Zimbabwe," an aide said on Tuesday.

"We have not seen the positive changes we would like."

The chancellor will also confront Mbeki on his handling of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which affects 5.5 million people in South Africa, and visit an AIDS project for children co-run by a German Catholic mission in Cape Town.

Critics deride the government's failure to come up with a coherent AIDS prevention and treatment plan and a source in Berlin hinted that Merkel would call for a more "satisfactory" response.

The chancellor will meet with former president and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela on Saturday before visiting Soccer City, a stadium being built as part of South Africa's preparation to host the football World Cup in 2010, four years after Germany did so.

Trade between South Africa and Germany has more than doubled since the fall of apartheid and Merkel will be accompanied by a 21-strong economic delegation that will scout for more investment opportunities in the country.

Though Merkel is not taking a new development aid package to Africa, sources said Berlin is keenly aware of China's economic expansion in Africa and its strong political influence in Sudan.

In Cape Town, Merkel will hold talks with the city's mayor and national opposition leader Helen Zille, whose head-on battle with the government reached a low point last month when she was arrested during an anti-drug demonstration.

"The chancellor wants to hear from the mayor herself her impression of the incident," said an advisor.

He added that it would form part Merkel's efforts to inform herself about the human rights situation in South Africa before the nation goes to the polls in 2009 to elect a successor to Mbeki.

Merkel, who honed her reputation for tackling human rights issues on a trip to China in August, will also "openly discuss concerns about human rights and press freedom" with Ethiopia's leaders.

In Liberia, she will hold talks with Johnson Sirleaf to "show her support" for Africa's only woman president as she tries to stabilise the diamond-rich country that suffered 14 years of civil war.

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