Thursday, January 17, 2008

Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe Hold Talks in Harare

Mbeki meets Mugabe over Zimbabwe deadlock

Thu 17 Jan 2008, 17:34 GMT
By Cris Chinaka

HARARE (Reuters) - South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in Harare on Thursday and met Robert Mugabe for talks on Zimbabwe's political crisis, amid signs the government would not yield to opposition demands for a new constitution.

Mbeki had four hours of talks with the Zimbabwean president, before leaving for a meeting with officials of the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Details of the talks were expected at the end of the meetings later Thursday.

Mbeki's arrival followed reports from South Africa that a deal was imminent.

The South African president has been mediating between Mugabe's government and the MDC for nearly a year at the urging of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional grouping of 14 countries.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said this week a breakthrough in the negotiations might be achieved soon and an agreement that would pave the way for free elections in March in Zimbabwe was only days away.

Ahern made his comments to reporters after a briefing by Mbeki in the South African capital, Pretoria.

South African Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad told reporters in Pretoria on Wednesday it seemed that all substantial issues in the Zimbabwe talks had been resolved and it was the timing of the agreement that was in question.

Zimbabwe's government-controlled Herald newspaper said on Thursday there was a serious division between ZANU-PF and the MDC over the adoption of a new constitution, which was agreed during the talks in Pretoria.

"Sources close to the dialogue being brokered by South Africa said ZANU-PF negotiators last Sunday told the mediator that a deadlock was on the verge of being declared as the government was not prepared to impose a new constitution without a broad-based consultative process," it said.

Government and opposition officials were not immediately available for comment on the Herald report, which quoted unnamed sources.


The Herald said the MDC wanted a new constitution to be adopted before presidential and parliamentary polls were held, or the polls postponed. Government negotiators believed the MDC was making its demands under directives from London, it said.

Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, accuses the MDC of being a puppet of the former colonial power, Britain, which is denied by the opposition party.

The Zimbabwean leader has vowed to run for another five-year term, despite widespread accusations that his government has abused human rights, rigged previous elections and destroyed the economy.

Zimbabweans are struggling with inflation of more than 8,000 percent and chronic shortages of food and fuel. Thousands cross illegally into South Africa every day to look for food and work.

Political analyst and Mugabe critic John Makumbe said the opposition would be making a mistake by participating in elections before a new constitution was put in place.

"The master of deception, ZANU-PF, is leading the MDC up the garden path," Makumbe said.

"It stands to reason that all the MDC and ZANU-PF have agreed upon through the mediation talks is little more than efforts to hoodwink SADC."

(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Johannesburg; editing by Andrew Dobbie)

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