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Staff writer

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has extended a formal invitation to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to attend its 10th general assembly meeting, which is scheduled for mid-February in Thailand, government sources said Friday.

The sources said the UNCTAD secretary general, who extended the invitation recently through diplomatic channels, has invited Obuchi to join the round-table discussion between world leaders to be held on the final day.

If Obuchi attends, he will be the first Japanese prime minister to join a general assembly meeting of UNCTAD.

The UNCTAD secretariat in Geneva has scheduled the meeting to be held from Feb. 12 to 19.

Among non-Asian world leaders, French President Jacques Chirac and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are expected to attend the round-table discussion, the sources said.

During his planned visit to Tokyo later this month, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai is also expected to ask Obuchi to attend the round-table portion of the UNCTAD meeting, the sources said.

In response to the formal invitation from the UNCTAD secretary general, the government will begin to seriously consider having Obuchi attend the meeting, the sources said.

Although the UNCTAD meeting will be held during the next ordinary Diet session, Obuchi may be able to go to Thailand because the date for the planned round falls on a Saturday, the sources said.

UNCTAD has held a general assembly meeting once every four years since it was set up in 1964 to spur growth and modernization in developing countries.

The last such meeting was in South Africa in spring 1996. Then Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda attended that meeting, becoming the first Japanese foreign minister to visit South Africa since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in 1992.

The Thailand meeting will be the third to be held in Asia. UNCTAD held its second general assembly meeting in New Delhi in 1968 and its fifth one in Manila in 1979.

In recent years, UNCTAD has gained a reputation as a forum for just talk that yields little substantive results. The United States and other major Western industrialized nations have criticized the U.N. body as being too large and too inefficient.

For UNCTAD, getting industrialized countries with the money and expertise to commit themselves to helping poorer countries develop remains the biggest challenge, especially amid economic globalization.

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