The cotton sector in African countries is seriously threatened by agricultural subsidies granted by rich countries to their cotton producers, President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso wrote in The New York Times.

  

"Our demand is simple: Apply free trade rules not only to those products that are of interest to the rich and powerful, but also to those products where poor countries have a proven comparative advantage," they wrote.

 

According to the African leaders, cotton accounted for up to 40 percent of export revenues and 10 percent of gross domestic product of Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Chad.

 

They said it was 50 percent cheaper to produce cotton in Africa than in developed nations.

 

Trade distortions

  

But the industry's competitiveness was being undercut by about three billion dollars in annual assistance paid in the US to 25,000 cotton farmers to enhance their competitive edge, the presidents said.

  

"Such subsidies lead to worldwide overproduction and distort cotton prices, depriving poor African countries of their only comparative advantage in international trade," complained Toure and Compaore. The payments lead to the impoverishment of about 10 million rural poor people in west and central Africa, they added.

 

The shot across the bow came as US President George W. Bush toured Africa, urging regional leaders to adhere to free trade and open their markets to US products, particularly genetically modified crops currently banned in many countries.

 

US motives suspect

 

Meanwhile, in the Ugandan capital Entebbe on Friday, Bush promised Africans the US would spend the full $15 billion he has sought for a five-year AIDS plan, despite moves in Congress to cut funding for the first year.

   

Many people in the country are suspicious of US motives in offering help in the fight against AIDS. A group of demonstrators waved placards as Bush's motorcade swept by. "Do you want to save lives or make profits for your industry friends," read one banner.

 

Bush was in Uganda as part of his five-nation tour which has already taken him to Senegal, South Africa and Botswana. He visit culminates in Nigeria.