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Gadhafi starts tour to exert more influence

Col. Moammar Gadhafi is on the march again.

This time, however, the quixotic Libyan leader isn't bankrolling terrorists, dispatching hit squads or drawing a line of death in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, flanked by his familiar green-uniformed female bodyguards, he's rolling through five southern African nations, promising aid and debt relief in the latest of his periodic attempts to expand his influence.

Dressed in colorful African attire, Gadhafi, 59, shook hands with Swaziland's 34-year-old King Mswati III, whom he kept referring to as "my son," and promised aid to the poor nation.

Oil-rich Libya has the means to help its sub-Saharan neighbors. South African newspapers reported that the security-conscious Gadhafi arrived with 400 guards, 60 armored vehicles, two Boeing jets, a Russian Antonov plane and two luxury buses. He also brought 27 submachine guns, 48 AK-47 automatic rifles and several rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

In drought-stricken Malawi this week, Gadhafi reportedly threw fistfuls of cash from an open-top limousine. In Swaziland last weekend, a jamming device on one of his armored vehicles played havoc with the cell phone network as bemused citizens watched his motorcade zoom by.

Gadhafi's ends are clear. Perpetually searching for a bigger stage than his nation of 5.2-million people, he wants to become the first president of the African Union, which is modeled after the European Union and replaced the toothless Organization of African Unity last week. He wants the AU, which he helped create, to be headquartered in Tripoli, Libya's capital, and used as a forum to rally Africans against the West.

But the mercurial Gadhafi also has been trying to mend fences with the United States, perhaps by paying billions of dollars in compensation to the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, for which one of his intelligence officers was convicted last year.

In southern Africa this week, however, Gadhafi was in full anti-Western mode. At a large rally in Malawi, peppered with placards that proclaimed him "The Champion of African Unity," he raged against Africa's European colonizers for plundering the continent's natural resources.

"Africans have been enslaved for ages, but the African Union will free Africa," said Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya since he seized power in a military coup in 1969.

The AU and dictators such as Gadhafi, however, have different visions of Africa's future.

The new organization requires its members to follow democratic principles and respect human rights. Many Africans fear that Gadhafi and others could hijack the cash-strapped AU from a new generation of leaders who are promising to root out corruption and hold free elections in exchange for Western aid, trade and investment.

"Gadhafi is manipulating and using the weaker states to promote himself so that he can basically be king of Africa," said Vusie Ginindza, an editor at the Times of Swaziland. "He has created a lot of enemies for himself. We don't know the consequences of our fraternizing with him."

Some Swazis said they expected more from Gadhafi. The nation is reeling from a food crisis and from one of the world's highest AIDS rates.

"If he had said, "Look I'm buying 5,000 metric tons of maize,' that would have been great," said Ben Nsibandze, the chairman of Swaziland's National Disaster Task Force.

"At the end of the day, the Americans, England, France and Canada will have to foot the bill," said Makhundu William Kelly, the assistant director of Caritas, the relief arm of the Roman Catholic Church. "What has Swaziland ever gotten from Libya?"