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Africa 2006,

The earliest inhabitants of the Gabonese jungles were small bands of Pygmies or Babinga. Some 600 years ago Bantu-speaking peoples from the north started settling the coastal areas. They moved to the interior during the 16th Century. The Portuguese established contact in 1472 and were followed by Dutch, British and French who traded in slaves, ivory and precious tropical woods with the coastal kingdoms. The French established a fortified settlement on the Gabon estuary which evolved into Libreville, a community for liberated slaves. At the urging of explorer Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the areas known as Gabon and the Middle Congo were occupied by France in 1886. In 1910 part of Gabon was incorporated into French Equato rial Africa but a year later the northern parts of Gabon and Congo Brazzaville were ceded by treaty to German Cameroon. They were returned to the French after World War I and in 1960 a unified Gabon became an independent republic. When its first president, Leon M'Ba, died in 1967 Vice-President Albert Bernard Bongo took over and continued his predecessor's one-man rule until 1992 when he was obliged to call general elections in response to strong internal student and worker pressures. (After his conversion to Islam in 1973, Bongo changed his given names, Albert Bernard to El Hadji Omar. In 1993 Bongo was elected president in a disputed election. He was re-elected in 1998 for another seven year term.