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Mbeki's Mediation in Zimbabwe Falters

South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to tell southern Africa leaders at the AU summit in Ethiopia this week that his attempt to resolve the Zimbabwe crisis has failed. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA that President Mbeki has been trying to continue negotiations for free and fair elections this week, even after President Robert Mugabe had issued a proclamation that polls would take place on March 29.

President Mbeki had informed colleagues in the region that he was hopeful a meeting would take place between President Mugabe and the two leaders of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.

The South African leader was hoping that a face-to-face meeting between the political opponents would lead to a breakthrough after he failed in four hours of talks with President Mugabe on January 16. He tried to persuade the 84-year-old Zimbabwe leader to stick to an earlier agreement for a new constitution and other changes before elections next month.

Since then, senior South African negotiators have been working tirelessly in Harare in an attempt to arrange talks between President Mugabe and his opponents. But, diplomats in Harare say President Mugabe kept President Mbeki and his negotiators on the run until it became clear, earlier this week, that he would not agree to the talks under any circumstances.

President Mbeki is now at the African Union summit without the deal that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) asked him to facilitate,free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.

MDC insiders say they warned the South Africans that President Mugabe would not play straight and would, as one said, "play games with Mbeki" and "double cross him all the time."

One African diplomat told VOA that for some reason, which few close to the talks understood, Mbeki seems "frightened of Mugabe."

One of the two MDC negotiators, founding MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube, told VOA "the dialogue is as dead as a dodo." He added that all that remains is for Mr. Mbeki to decide where to bury it.

He said some might want to pretend that the talks were indefinite. He said the MDC's position had been clear from the start, that the purpose of the talks was to find common ground so that the next elections would be free, fair and undisputed.

Ncube and his colleague in the negotiations, the MDC's Tendai Biti, are on record that only free and fair elections could solve the present political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.

Ncube said Zimbabweans now face the same kind of elections on March 29 as all those since 2000, which many observers found neither free nor fair, and which have all been disputed.

This weekend the two MDC factions, still struggling to come to a unity agreement before nomination court day on February 8, will hold meetings of their national executive councils.

Top of the agenda will be whether to boycott the polls and allow Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF into power for a further five years without having to fight any elections. They say their other option is to give it another go, knowing that the political playing fields are as unequal now as they ever were.