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President Clinton is calling for a new U.S. policy toward Africa to help solve the continent's underlying problems that are creating disruption and conflict.

At a White House conference on Africa, Clinton offered no specific plan but said he would use the information presented by Africa experts at the conference to help chart his policy.Clinton said Monday that the major hurdle for greater U.S. involvement with Africa is "to explain to the American people of whatever race, region or background, why Africa matters to all of us and to our common future."

He called on some 170 participants in the two-day conference to help build a constituency for Africa because such constituency-building "is the first thing that we must do in our democracy."

"I do know we need a new policy," said Clinton. "In the face of all the tensions that are now gripping the continent, we need a new American policy based on the idea that we should help the nations of Africa identify and solve problems before they erupt. Reacting is not enough; we must examine these under-lying problems."

One problem that needs attention before progress can be made in other areas, he said, is the enormous debt burden of African nations, estimated collectively at some $180 billion in debts to foreign governments and banks.

Some conference participants asked the United States to lead the way in debt forgiveness.

While the United States has its own deficit problems, Clinton said, "we are actively searching for new solutions to this problem. And I believe that we have to do something about it."

Clinton said that with all the dismal news from Rwanda and elsewhere, it is important to stress the positive developments, such as South Africa's transition away from apartheid and the growth of democracy around the continent.

"Let's remind people that there are things to hope about," Clinton said. "We can never develop a constituency for change in this country until people imagine that it will make a difference."