BAMAKO Feb 13 Chinese President Hu Jintao laid the first brick of a "Friendship Bridge" in Mali's capital on Friday, calling it China's largest ever gift to impoverished West Africa.
Hu launched the construction project in front of hundreds of drummers, school children and Chinese workers on the second day of an African tour meant to extend trade and investment links with the continent.
The Chinese president then flew to Senegal, the second stop in a tour that analysts say aims to reassure Africa that Beijing will not ease up on aid during hard economic times and its investment interests extend beyond oil and mining.
China has had a long involvement in Africa, building many infrastructure projects in countries that emerged from European colonial rule. But with a booming economy that has been hungry for resources, its interest has diversified and trade with Africa has multiplied 10-fold since 2000, soaring 45 percent to nearly $107 billion last year alone.
"The third Bamako bridge will be the largest project carried out in West Africa paid for with money donated by China," Hu said at a ceremony with Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Malian government figures put the cost of the 2.6 km (1.6 mile) "Sino-Malian Friendship Bridge" at around 38 billion CFA francs ($74.9 million).
The flood of Chinese interest in Africa has attracted criticism as well as praise on the world's poorest continent.
Some human rights campaigners criticise the "no strings attached" policy and accuse Beijing of ignoring rights abuses while doing business in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe. Others say the relationship is lopsided, with China gaining more than its African counterparts in both trade benefits and jobs.
Hu called on the Chinese and Malian workers to collaborate closely on the construction of the bridge, which will stretch over the Niger River in what he called a "new sign of the union" between the two countries.
Analysts at home and abroad have noted that none of the countries Hu is visiting, which include Tanzania and Mauritius, are rich in oil or minerals.
"This shows that Sino-African relations are not, as some have misrepresented, just energy and resource relations -- that is, 'neo-colonialism' by China in Africa," wrote Friday's overseas edition of the People's Daily.
"Energy and resources form a part of Sino-African cooperation, but they are far from the whole," the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party said in its commentary.
Chinese links with Africa have not escaped the global economic slowdown, which has hit Beijing's booming economy and curbed Chinese demand for Africa's mineral resources.
Numerous Chinese companies working in copper and cobalt mining in Congo have scaled back or suspended operations.
"China and the nations of Africa face bigger and bigger challenges. How to strengthen cooperation, coordinate action and together navigate past the difficulties is rightly the topic of this visit by President Hu," the People's Daily said. ($1=507.5 Cfa Franc) (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; writing by David Lewis; editing by Alistair Thomson and Mark Trevelyan)
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