Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Mali on Wednesday at the start of a four-country African tour likely to be dominated by talk of AIDS and conflict.
Powell's tour, which began in West Africa and will take him to South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, has challenged widespread assumptions that the world's poorest continent is not high on President Bush's foreign policy agenda.
Powell, an African American through his Jamaican immigrant parents, has given Africa precedence on his travel schedule over Asia and Latin America.
Powell made no comment on arriving just after 9 a.m. in Bamako, capital of one of the world's poorest countries but one seen as a an example of relative democracy and economic liberalism in a region where both are in short supply.
Powell was met by Mali's foreign affairs minister, Modibo Sidibe, and is later due to join President Alpha Oumar Konare for lunch before meeting other politicians in the afternoon.
State Department officials have said Powell has two main aims in his tour -- to find out first-hand about the epidemics of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases and hear African leaders talk about the regional wars ravaging the continent.
AIDS now affects some 25 million people in Africa, about 70 percent of the world total, and is now the primary cause of death on the continent. South Africa alone has 4.7 million AIDS sufferers, more than any other country in the world.
U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Nancy Powell said in Washington on Tuesday that Colin Powell wanted to examine the nature of the AIDS threat, which he has called a national security problem.
``It's also a chance...to look at what both Africans and the U.S. government and other Americans are doing to combat the disease in Africa,'' she told a briefing.
Powell is steering clear of regional hotspots like Sierra Leone, Sudan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo and mostly consulting African leaders who have a mediating role.
Konare is current chairman of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), which has played a leading role in trying to secure peace in a growing regional conflict involving Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea -- BAMAKO (Reuters)
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