- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

PARIS, March 9 (UPI) — French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin planned a whirlwind trip Sunday to Angola, Cameroon and Guinea, to appeal to all three to vote against another U.N. resolution against Iraq.

The three African countries — elected U.N. Security Council members and considered crucial swing votes — have rarely been so solicited.

U.S diplomats have paid visits in recent weeks. President George W. Bush has called his African counterparts to lobby for a U.N. resolution sponsored by Britain, the United States and Spain, that would set a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm or face military action.

De Villepin is making his second trip to Africa in eight months, to persuade the three countries that continued U.N. weapons inspections are the preferred option.

A spokeswoman at the French Foreign Ministry offered few details about the trip Sunday, other than to note that Iraq was the subject of de Villepin's upcoming meetings "with the highest officials in those governments."

The French envoy begins his visit in Angola Monday, before flying to Cameroon and Guinea. He returns to Paris Tuesday — on the eve of a key Security Council meeting in New York.

French President Jacques Chirac is reportedly lobbying heads of state to attend the next U.N. meeting, arguing they should take responsibility for a so-called "life or death" decision on Iraq.

Cameroon, Angola and Guinea are among six uncertain Security Council votes.

Britain, Spain and Bulgaria back the U.S. position. Five others, including permanent members China, France and Russia are against a war resolution. Russia and France have threatened to use their vetoes against an Iraq resolution.

It is unclear whether the three African countries will ultimately side with the French or U.S. positions. In his address Friday, for example, the foreign minister of Guinea — which heads the Security Council this month — offered mixed signals.

While Guinea is "in favor of the continuation of inspections, it is of the view that these cannot go on indefinitely," Guinea Foreign Minister Francois Lonseny Fall said.

Guinea and Cameroon are former colonies of France and receive substantial foreign aid from Paris. Guinea's majority Muslim population also appears staunchly opposed to war.

And all three countries signed onto a declaration opposing military action on Baghdad during a French-African summit last month. But some African leaders later complained they had not been consulted about the peace resolution — even though they had ostensibly endorsed it. Moreover, all three African countries enjoy budding trade, aid or defense ties with the United States.

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