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Nobel laureate defends her suggestion that AIDS stems from plot

NAIROBI -- Wangari Maathai made a typically combative start to her first full day as a Nobel laureate yesterday, defending a recent suggestion that the HIV virus might have been made in a laboratory as a plot against Africans.

The outspoken Kenyan environmentalist on Friday became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for aiding the poor with a campaign to plant trees and slow deforestation.

Maathai, rarely reluctant to challenge the status quo or confront the powerful, said her comments in August were intended to promote an inquiring attitude to AIDS among Africans and combat the fatalistic notion that it was a curse from God.

''Would you solve the problem if you believed it was a curse from God?" she said at a news conference, adding that one theory was that AIDS was created by a scientist in a laboratory as an agent of war. ''I was encouraging people to ask questions, which is what I always do."

Maathai caused a furor in Kenya when she was quoted in Kenya's East African Standard newspaper as calling AIDS a biological weapon devised to destroy black people. ''Do not be naive. AIDS is not a curse from God to Africans or the black people. It is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists, but we may not know who particularly did [it]," the Aug. 31 article quoted her as saying at a seminar in her home town of Nyeri.

A US State Department spokesman on Friday congratulated Maathai on the Peace Prize but said without elaborating that Washington did not agree with her on every issue.

A senior US State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, said: ''She has made some statements about the source of HIV/AIDS that we have very much disagreed with. She said it was invented as a bioweapon in some laboratory in the West. We don't agree with that."

The idea that AIDS began as a plot by Western scientists to control Africa's population is commonly heard across Africa.

Maathai said she never suggested any particular region was responsible for creating AIDS but she was suspicious about what she called the secrecy surrounding the origin of the virus. ''Some people say it came from the monkeys and I doubt it . . . others say that it is a curse from God. But I say it cannot be that only black people are cursed, because we are dying more then any other people on this planet and that's a fact."

Maathai has campaigned for years to educate Kenyans that felling swathes of woodland wreaks irreparable damage on Kenya's ecosystem. She said Mount Kenya, the continent's second-highest peak and the source of 13 of Kenya's rivers was endangered because several acres on the mountain had been cleared for firewood and charcoal while marijuana was being grown in the forests.

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