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China promised on Wednesday to "reduce or exempt" 10-billion yuan ($1.2-billion U.S.) in debt from African countries in a goodwill gesture to the world's poorest continent and a dig at its rich Western creditors.

But Beijing left itself room to manoeuvre by not specifying how much debt would be completely written off, or which countries would be included in its offer.

The offer would be made to "heavily indebted poor countries and the least developed countries in Africa" over the next two years, Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng told a forum on China-Africa cooperation.

Leaders of wealthy industrial nations, but not the United States, have said they are willing to erase $100-billion of Third World debt - much of it owed by poverty-stricken, war-torn Africa - but progress has been slow.

African delegates at the forum welcomed Beijing's offer, saying it set a good example for the Paris Club of rich creditor nations.

"I think this is very welcome," said Zimbabwe's Higher Education and Technology Minister, Herbert Murerwa. "It will translate into real savings for developing countries who can pour the money into health, education and infrastructure. We hope other countries can emulate this."

Western nations came under fire at the opening session of the forum on Tuesday when Chinese President Jiang Zemin railed at U.S. influence in world affairs and called for an aggressive overhaul of the world economic, trade and financial systems.

Sub-Saharan Africa owed $230-billion in foreign debt and paid out more than $15.2-billion in interest and prinicipal in 1999, says Jubilee 2000, a group that campaigns for cancellation of all Third World debt.

No figure was available for Africa's total debts to China, but some delegates said it dwarfed Beijing's offer.

Many others were hungry for details.

"Of course it's good news," said a delegate from Benin, one of West Africa's poorest nations. "The question now is whether we will be included. And there is no such thing as disinterested aid. Countries do this to become friends which means one day they will ask you to do something or, if there is some conflict, to be on their side."

China and arch-rival Taiwan frequently use financial aid to win the allegiance of African nations, eight of which maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei.

Foreign Minstry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said on Tuesday countries with diplomatic links to Taiwan would not be eligible for any debt offer.

Officials from the Chinese Foreign and Trade Ministries said Beijing had not yet decided how much debt to write off and which countries to favour.

"This will be decided through bilateral negotiations in the coming months," a Foreign Ministry official said.

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