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Annan Studies Zimbabwe Crisis; Official Calls Mugabe Retirement Talk 'Premature'


U.N. officials say Secretary-General Kofi Annan is exploring ways of resolving Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis. Those officials described talk of President Robert Mugabe's imminent retirement as "premature".

Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari says U.N. officials are in constant contact with Zimbabwe's government on ways to rescue the country's struggling economy. His comment came a day after South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said the key to halting Zimbabwe's slide toward economic and political crisis lies in the world body's hands.

South African media reports have suggested that a deal under consideration by Secretary-General Annan would include a package of international aid in return for an agreement by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to retire.

But speaking to reporters Wednesday, Undersecretary General Gambari called talk of such a deal "premature" "Zimbabwe faces enormous economic and social challenges. Their inflation rate has hit over one-thousand percent, and a country that used to be breadbasket of region is facing a lot of challenges. So whatever the United Nations can do, including the good offices role of the secretary-general will continue. It's premature to talk about any package, and even more premature to talk about that package including possible departure of President Mugabe," he said.

Mr. Annan's spokesman Stephane Dujarric Wednesday confirmed that the secretary-general is paying close attention to the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe, and has left open the possibility of a visit to Harare at some future date.

"He has been exploring through emissaries and others whether there is a possibility of movement on the political and economic front in Zimbabwe, ahead of a possible visit, but it would be premature to characterize it at this stage as an initiative or even a package," he said.

President Mugabe invited the Secretary-General to visit last year after a U.N. report condemned his government's slum destruction campaign, calling it a "disastrous venture". Government officials justified the campaign as a much-needed effort to drive out illegal squatters and criminals.

The 77-year old Mugabe has been in power since the country formerly known as Rhodesia gained independence from Britain in 1980. He has often accused opponents of conspiring with international critics, and suggested that his government may be a target for "regime change" by foreign powers.

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