Story Filed: Monday, December 16, 2002 5:32 PM EST
Bangui, Central African Republic (AP) -- The soldiers Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi sent to this African backwater speak no French or tribal languages -- nothing the residents can understand.
When the Libyan troops want to make a point, they flick the safety off their AK-47s and let the "click" speak for them.
The Libyan leader who achieved notoriety for supporting terrorism and announcing grand political schemes to unify the Arab world is now putting guns and money into Africa, most visibly in the Central Africa Republic.
The stream of African heads of state traveling to Tripoli has surged in step with Qadhafi's African ambitions. Since September, 12 African leaders have made the trip.
Covert Qadhafi roles are also alleged by Ivory Coast government supporters and West Africa analysts, and denied by Libya and its partners, in the gravest wars now roiling Africa.
There are fears that a generation of African leaders who have fallen out with the West could turn to Qadhafi for money, guns and friendship.
Qadhafi's coveted returns: The respect denied him in the Arab world, a shot at a statesman's role and shares of the wealth knocking around unstable, resource-rich Africa.
The Libyan leader turned his back on Arab leaders in October, after the Arab League refused to join African heads of state in condemning U.N. sanctions on Libya for the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing.
Since deploying here in May 2001, Qadhafi's forces have saved the unpopular Central African Republic president, Ange-Felix Patasse, from coup attempts three times. Libya's prize: a monopoly on mining the country's gold, diamonds and uranium -- although Patasse's government has denied it.
The embattled Ivory Coast government complains of outside backing in a 3-month-old rebellion shattering what was once West Africa's most stable and prosperous nation.
Leaders of Liberia and Burkina Faso, both Qadhafi proteges, are accused of funneling arms, cash -- and in Liberia's case, fighters -- to Ivory Coast rebels.
In Congo, where armed U.N. forces are trying to wind down a four-year, six-nation war, the Congolese envoy to the United Nations said recently that Libyan planes have flown in arms, ammunition and tanks to a pet rebel group there in recent weeks.
"Liars," Libyan African Affairs Minister Ali al-Treiki responded over the weekend.
John Stremlau, director of the Center for Africa's International Relations in Johannesburg, South Africa, says "Qadhafi has become a quixotic figure -- he's decided Africa is going to be his playground now that the Arab world has ignored him."
"But he's not so loony that he gives troops away for free. He's not a charitable organization," Stremlau added.
The conflicts are only the latest in Qadhafi's long African adventures. He started them in 1969, with his own officers' coup in Libya, on the tip of North Africa.
Alleged sponsorship of 1980s Arab terrorism led to international sanctions. But Qadhafi has found himself free to dally for decades in his role as Africa's godfather, without too much Western objection.
At times, he's fought African wars directly, as in Libya's invasion of neighboring Chad.
More often, he's fought them indirectly, cosseting fledgling rebels into full-grown fighters.
Wannabe-warlords Charles Taylor of Liberia, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone all got their starts in Qadhafi guerrilla-training camps of the 1980s.
Taylor, who went on to launch a seven-year civil war in Liberia, remains in power to this day.
So does Compaore, who ordered his best friend killed to take power. Sankoh, a doped babbler who waged a 10-year terror campaign to win Sierra Leone and its diamond mines, lost out, and awaits an expected war crimes trial from jail.
Now, the 60-year-old leader is throwing his energy and oil wealth into the African Union, which he prodded into being in July, succeeding the old dictators' club of the Organization of African Unity.
The Libyan-African friendships have paid off in promises of military training for Mozambique; a $360 million economic lifeline thrown to President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, which receives 70 percent of its oil from Libya.
Qadhafi-watchers say they note a change in the aging, African Union-era Qadhafi, who seems more focused now on propping up African leaders than toppling them.
In Bangui, the Central African Republic capital, Qadhafi's mustachioed soldiers man anti-aircraft guns. Libyan forces listen to Arab pop music in front of rocket-launchers on the main road leading to the airport, where two Libyan fighter jets stand ready.
Qadhafi's interest in Central African Republic dates to 1976, when he explored uranium and other mining projects with self-styled emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
The deals fell through, despite a one-day conversion to Islam by Bokassa.
But there are indications Central African Republic's new leader, Patasse, has revived the agreements. Earlier this year, his mining minister was widely quoted as saying Libya was granted a 99-year monopoly on the country's massive mineral reserves, including gold, diamonds and uranium.
The government subsequently denied the reports and banned all mining ministry staff from speaking to reporters.
"I am not saying anything," was all Libya's most senior official in Bangui, envoy Issa Moammar Baruni, would offer when asked about his country's interest here.
Among locals, sentiments against Patasse's Libyan allies have swelled since a November 2001 coup attempt.
Then, Libyans shelled northern neighborhoods of Bangui to stop the rebel advance, said Gbossokotto Maka, editor of the Le Citoyen newspaper.
Residents show lone flip-flops, pools of dried blood and other debris -- evidence of loved ones killed by their Libyan allies, they say.
"Ever since the bombardment, Central Africans have had a grudge against them. We refuse to accept them," Maka said. "These Libyans are mercenaries. Even if the population is in front of them, they will fire. It means nothing to them."
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