ADDIS ABABA - Conflict in the Central African Republic and South Sudan dominated the agenda as Africa's leaders met in Ethiopia Thursday for a two-day summit.
The African Union meeting, opened by outgoing chairman and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, is officially focused on agriculture and food security.
But the 54-member continental bloc has spent much of the time bogged down yet again trying to resolve conflict in member states.
"Our hearts go to the people of the Central African Republic and South Sudan who face devastating conflicts in their countries and especially to women and children who've become the victims," AU commission chief Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma said in her opening remarks.
"We have to work together to ensure that we build lasting peace," she told the meeting at the gleaming Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Presidents and Heads of governments pose for a group photo during the opening session of the African Union Summit. PHOTO/AFP
Ethiopia's Hailemariam called for "urgent solutions to rescue these two sisterly countries from falling into the abyss", as he gave his final speech as AU chair.
"Failure to do so will have serious implications for peace and security in the region," he added.
The unfolding humanitarian disaster in CAR, where a 5,300-strong AU force is deployed alongside 1,600 French soldiers, is a key talking point for the leaders.
CAR descended into chaos 10 months ago after rebels overthrew the government, sparking violence between the Christian majority and Muslim minority that has uprooted a million people out of a population of 4.6 million.
Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz (L) shakes hands with his Equatorial Guinean couterpart, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as host, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Haliemariam Dessalegn (C) looks on. PHOTO/AFP
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On Saturday, after the official summit closes, African leaders and Western diplomats will hold a pledging conference to raise cash for the AU-led MISCA mission in CAR.
"What we hope is strong support for MISCA, to enable it to implement its mandate more effectively," the director of the AU peace and security council, El-Ghassim Wane, told AFP.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said CAR was "a growing challenge", while European Union Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said "more financing is needed".
Zambia's President Michael Sata (L) and his Zimbabwean counterpart President Robert Mugabe walk hand in hand. PHOTO/AFP
United Nations Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said supporting the MISCA force was a priority, while on neighbouring South Sudan, he said he was "deeply concerned" and urged the warring sides to stick to their ceasefire deal.
The government and rebels in South Sudan signed a fragile ceasefire last week, but clashes continue, with thousands killed and more than 800,000 forced from their homes in bloodshed that has now lasted six weeks.
"Both protagonists should know that the problem cannot be resolved through the barrel of the gun," Hailemariam said.
"Therefore they should be fully prepared to sit at the negotiation table without any preconditions."
Dennis Sassou Nguesso (3rd r), President of Congo Brazzaville, smiles on as he arrives next to Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (3rd L) at the African Union (AU) headquarters for the opening session of the AU summit. PHOTO/AFP
Peace talks led by the regional East African bloc the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) adjourned after last week's ceasefire deal, with mediators calling for the AU to play a greater role in the peace process.
Leaders also focused on "Agenda 2063", a 50-year roadmap for the AU that has been a major preoccupation for Dlamini-Zuma.
Written as a message to a hypothetical friend in 2063, Dlamini-Zuma spoke of a "grand reality" where a new Confederation of African States has replaced the AU.
She described Kinshasa as having eclipsed Paris and Milan as fashion capital of the world, and Accra as upstaging Brussels as the home of gourmet chocolate.
The one-year rotating chair of the AU also passed from Ethiopia to Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who became the north African country's president in 2009 after leading two coups in four years.