Obama ends benefits for Guinea, Madagascar, Niger

WASHINGTON Wed Dec 23, 2009 8:33pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he has terminated trade benefits for Guinea, Madagascar and Niger, three African countries where democratic progress is threatened by political turmoil.

In a statement, Obama said the three countries had failed to make "continual progress" in meeting U.S. requirements for the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

"Each of these countries has experienced an undemocratic transfer of power, which is incompatible with making progress toward establishing the rule of law or political pluralism," said a White House official.

"These circumstances also make it extremely difficult to achieve the progress necessary to satisfy the other AGOA eligibility criteria," the official added.

At the same time, Obama said he was adding Mauritania to the list of sub-Saharan African countries eligible for preferential U.S. tariff treatment under the program.

Separately, the State Department said the United States had suspended non-humanitarian aid to Niger and imposed travel bans on some government officials in response to Niger President Mamadou Tandja's moves to extend his time as leader.

Tandja's original term was to end on December 22.

Earlier this month, Obama sent Tandja a message calling for more democracy in Niger. The United States has also frozen $20 million in aid for Niger under its U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement with the country.

GUINEA'S JUNTA BLAMED FOR DEATHS

A United Nations report on Monday blamed Guinea's junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara for the September 28 killings of more than 150 pro-democracy marchers by security forces.

Guinea, the world's top exporter of bauxite and a pivotal country for the security of West Africa, has been on the brink of chaos since the massacre and a botched assassination attempt against Camara on December 3 by his former aide de camp.

Madagascar's security forces on Tuesday fired teargas at opposition leaders and hundreds of their supporters outside parliament as political tensions escalated on the Indian Ocean island.

The brief flare-up happened near the national assembly where the opposition plans to form a new parliament, a process President Andry Rajoelina says is illegitimate.

The United States provides duty-free treatment for nearly 6,400 eligible items such as clothing, cocoa, wood, leather, processed foods and cut flowers under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. However, the biggest single import under the program is oil.

To be eligible, countries must at least be making continual progress toward establishing the rule of law and political pluralism, the protection of human rights and workers rights and efforts to fight corruption.

The United States imported $324.3 million worth of goods from Madagascar, $106.4 million from Guinea and $44.3 million from Niger in 2008.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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