Obama, en route to South Africa, praises Mandela for leadership

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama praised anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela as he flew to South Africa on Friday but played down expectations of a meeting with the ailing black leader.

"I don't need a photo op," Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving Senegal, the first stop on his three-country Africa trip. "The last thing I want to do is to be in any way obtrusive at a time when the family is concerned with Nelson Mandela's condition."

The 94-year-old former South African president was hospitalized in critical condition in the capital, Pretoria.

Obama, the first black American president, sees Mandela as a hero. Mandela fought racial barriers in a decades-long struggle against apartheid before becoming his country's first black president. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S. president said he did not think Mandela's condition would change the message of his Africa trip.

"I think the main message we'll want to deliver is not directly to him, but to his family - is simply profound gratitude for his leadership all these years, and that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with him, his family and his country," Obama said.

White House officials hope Obama's tour of Africa will compensate for what some view as years of neglect. It is his first substantial visit to the continent since taking office in 2009.

(Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Vicki Allen)