President Thabo Mbeki has withdrawn himself from the public debate on the causes of Aids after admitting that he has created confusion in South Africa, a report said on Sunday.

Mbeki announced his withdrawal from the scientific debate at a meeting of his African National Congress' (ANC) national executive committee, the party's highest decision-making body, the Sunday Times reported.

But the president did not back down on his controversial stance and re-expounded his position to the meeting, it said.

He has questioned the orthodox scientific view that HIV is the cause of Aids and sided with dissidents who claim other factors, including poverty and malnutrition, could also play a role.

He has also reportedly suggested that pharmaceutical giants, helped by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, were pushing the notion that HIV causes Aids to boost their drug sales.

The president admitted to parliament three weeks ago that his stance had created confusion in South Africa, which at the end of 1999 had the highest number of HIV infections in the world, according to the United Nation's Aids project, UnAids.

He insisted that a "virus cannot cause a syndrome", but added that the government's Aids policy is based on the thesis that the disease is caused by HIV.

But critics have claimed that his stance is causing people to reject conventional wisdom on preventing HIV infection.

Acknowledging public confusion, the government this month launched a R2-million rand ublicity campaign promoting conventional methods of fighting Aids, such as using condoms.

Mbeki has aired his views on several public platforms, including in Time magazine, and his position has been widely condemned in South Africa, including by the ANC's alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party. - Sapa-AFP