Ali goes the rounds with care package to Africa

Fans chanted "Ali! Ali!" as the former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali visited the city of San Pedro near the Liberian border this week to deliver food and gifts to war refugees.

Ali came to San Pedro, on the Ivory Coast, after a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian refugee children at a mission in the city embarked on a letter-writing campaign to raise funds for food, medicine and school supplies.

"I never actually expected to get such a response," said Sister Sponsa Beltran, who heard in July from Ali and from Yank Berry, a Canadian entrepreneur whose VitaPro Foods Processing company produces a soy-based meat substitute that has been used to feed refugees elsewhere in Africa.

The two men joined forces to make the trip to West Africa and deliver VitaPro, along with toys and medicine, to the Centre Bon Berger Catholic Mission in San Pedro. Sister Beltran cares for 105 Liberian children - 61 of them handicapped - at the mission. She said about 400 others in the area also rely on her for food and care.

Ali, 55, suffers from Parkinson's disease and speaks in a barely audible whisper, but he shook hands and traded joke punches with scores of children who crowded the mission grounds to see him.

Ali's most famous visit to Africa was in 1974, when he beat George Foreman in Kinshasa, in what was then Zaire, in their heavyweight title bout known as the Rumble in the Jungle. He returned to Africa in 1980 for a far less successful trip, trying to persuade African countries to follow the United States in a political boycott of that year's Moscow Olympic Games.

Many African countries refused to go along with the boycott.

Ivory Coast became home to some 350,000 Liberian refugees during Liberia's seven-year civil war. The war ended late last year and the country's presidential elections held in July were peaceful, but many refugees have yet to return to their homeland for fear of a renewal of violence or because their homes were destroyed in the fighting.

Sister Beltran said she hoped eventually to move all the children at the San Pedro mission to Liberia.