WASHINGTON — U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has formally notified congressional leaders of the Bush administration’s intent to begin negotiating a free-trade pact with five sub-Saharan African nations in 90 days.

The U.S., which already has several trade deals in the works, plans to start yet another with Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland.

The five countries make up the South Africa Customs Union and are already beneficiaries of a trade bill passed in 2000, which grants them apparel and textile trade breaks.

"We are responding to Congress’ direction, as expressed in the African Growth & Opportunity Act, to initiate negotiations with interested beneficiary countries to serve as the catalyst for increasing free trade between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa and for increasing private-sector investment in the region," Zoellick said in a statement.

Total two-way trade between the U.S. and five SACU countries was about $7.9 billion in 2001, according to the USTR. The five countries are the largest U.S. export market in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for some $3.1 billion in exports in 2001.

South Africa, the largest economy of the five SACU countries, imported $185.98 million worth of apparel and textiles to the U.S. for the year ending August, while the U.S. exported $22.94 million worth of apparel and textiles to South Africa, according to the Commerce Department.

The Bush administration has been aggressively pursuing bilateral, regional and multilateral trade pacts and is facing many hurdles within negotiations. It hopes to wrap up free-trade pacts with Chile and Singapore this year and send the deals to Congress in 2003. Negotiators also hope to start talks next year with five Central American countries and begin talks on a separate deal with Morocco.

In addition, the administration is involved in two multilateral negotiations with a 2005 deadline: global trade talks between 144 World Trade Organization members and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which aims to create a Western Hemispheric trade zone among 34 countries.

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