Reuters 19 Feb. 2002

Johannesburg -- South Africa's Nelson Mandela on Tuesday brushed aside speculation about a growing rift with his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, over the government's controversial handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"The feeling that there is a rift between us is totally untrue," Mandela said in a radio interview a day after meeting with Mbeki and senior members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to discuss the AIDS crisis. South African newspapers reported on Tuesday that Mandela had locked horns during the meeting with Mbeki over the issue, but that the two leaders later agreed to close ranks.

The 83-year-old Mandela, who stepped down as president in 1999, has in recent weeks made several strong statements on HIV/AIDS. Mbeki has drawn criticism both at home and abroad for publicly questioning the link between HIV and AIDS and for refusing to provide drugs that can help prevent pregnant women with HIV from transmitting the virus to their children.

In an interview over the weekend, Mandela said it was time to stop debating and fight a "war" against the epidemic. "We must not continue debating, to be arguing when people are dying," he told the Sunday Times newspaper.

Mandela told 702 Radio on Tuesday that his comments were not a criticism of Mbeki or his government, which he added was correctly handling the AIDS crisis.

"The only weakness is that they have not communicated sufficiently. If they did, I'm sure many people would appreciate why they are so cautious about this matter," he said. "I was not criticising the government. I was talking about the debate and calling upon everybody to try and agree on how AIDS should be treated," Mandela said.

Citing sources at the meeting, the Star newspaper said Mandela had complained about the lack of debate within the ANC on critical issues such as the use of antiretroviral drugs for pregnant women. "Mandela was worried that not one of the ANC cabinet ministers opposed to Mbeki's approach to HIV/AIDS pandemic has spoken out," the newspaper said.