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Barack Obama, in Kenya, says discriminating against gays erodes freedom

U.S. President Barack Obama, commenting on gay rights in Kenya, said on Saturday his message across Africa was that the state should not discriminate against people based on sexual orientation.

U.S., Kenya working to launch direct flights as economic boost

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      U.S. President Barack Obama, commenting on gay rights in Kenya, said on Saturday his message across Africa was that the state should not discriminate against people based on sexual orientation.

      U.S. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at Memorial Park on the former site of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, where al-Qaeda militants bombed the compound in 1998, killing more than 200 people. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

      Obama told a joint news conference with Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta that treating people differently eroded freedom and then "bad things happen." Kenyatta said Kenya and America shared many values but not on all issues, saying gay rights was a "non-issue" for his people.

      Kenya, like many African states, outlaws homosexuality. Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto said in May that there was "no room" for gays in Kenya. Obama has hailed a July U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage.

      Earlier in the day, Obama heralded Africa as a continent "on the move," as he opened a U.S.-sponsored business summit in the East African nation, where he has family ties.

      "Africa is one of the fastest growing regions of the world," Obama said. "People are being lifted out of poverty."

      Barack Obama, speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at the United Nations Compound in Nairobi, said 'Africa is on the move. People are being lifted out of poverty, incomes are up [and] the middle class is growing.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

      Obama also said the U.S. and Kenya are working to launch direct flights between the countries to help boost business and tourism. Kenya's $1 billion tourism industry has suffered in the wake of mass assaults carried out in recent years by the al-Shabaab extremist group, which is based across the border in Somalia.

      Obama's visit to Kenya — the first by a sitting U.S. president — has been highly anticipated in a nation that views him as a local son. The president's late father was born in Kenya and many family members still live here, including his elderly step-grandmother.

      "This is personal for me," Obama said. "There's a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama."

      Much of the president's visit is focused on boosting business and security ties with Kenya, a growing economy grappling with the threat of terrorism, most notably from the Somalia-based al-Shabaab network. Nearly two dozen U.S. lawmakers and 200 American investors have joined Obama on his trip, which also includes a stop in Ethiopia.

      At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Saturday, Obama announced more than $1 billion in new commitments from the U.S. government, as well as American banks, foundations and philanthropists. Half of the money will go to support women and young people, who Obama says face bigger obstacles when trying to start businesses.

      Supporting women's rights

      "If half of your team is not playing, you've got a problem," Obama said, referring to women excluded from the formal economy.

      Barack Obama, left, meets Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta as he arrives for a visit at the State House in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

      Obama hosted the inaugural entrepreneurship summit at the White House in 2010. This year's conference is the first to be held in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Kenyatta, who co-hosted the summit with Obama, lamented that the continent's security and other challenges, including the 2013 attack on an upscale Nairobi mall, had created a negative reputation. He said he hoped Obama's visit would help change the narrative about Kenya and Africa.

      'Limitless opportunity' in Africa

      "Africa is the world's newest and most promising frontier of limitless opportunity," Kenyatta said. "Gone are the days when the only lens to view our continent was one of despair and indignity."

      As the two leaders sat down for a formal meeting at Kenya's State House, Obama emphasized the need for timetables and concrete plans to make progress for the region. He said the U.S. wants to partner with Africa "not out of charity, but because we see opportunity."

      "What happens in Africa is going to affect the world," Obama said.

      While in Nairobi, Obama toured an innovation fair highlighting the work of vendors working with his Power Africa initiative, which aims to double sub-Saharan access to electricity. As he perused solar panels and posed for photos, Obama acknowledged concerns that the program's progress has been slow, but said it would soon help millions and that building power plants takes time even in the U.S.

      Obama also placed a wreath at the site of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The president bowed his head for a moment, then studied the names of the victims etched into a brick wall.

      Extremists simultaneously attacked the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998. The Kenya attack killed more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans at the embassy. Thousands were injured.

      Obama arrived in Kenya late Friday and spent the night reuniting with his father's family. Security was tight in the Kenyan capital, with some of the city's normally bustling streets closed to traffic and pedestrians during his visit.

      There was palpable excitement in Nairobi for Obama's long-awaited visit. U.S. and Kenyan flags lined the main road from the airport and billboards bearing Obama's picture dotted the city. Local newspapers marveled at the massive U.S. Secret Service contingent that accompanies Obama whenever he travels overseas.

      With files from The Associated Press

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