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Zimbabwe Spared of Commonwealth Action - 2002-03-04

The Commonwealth group of former British colonies says it will not take action against Zimbabwe before the country's presidential election, despite accusations of vote rigging and intimidation by its leader Robert Mugabe. At the end of a meeting in Australia, the Commonwealth agreed to set up a three-nation committee to judge the election this week and impose sanctions if the vote is not free or fair.

The row over Zimbabwe had threatened to derail the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, or CHOGM, on Australia's Sunshine Coast at Coolum. The four-day summit of the Commonwealth, representing 1.7 billion people and a third of the world's countries, has been deeply divided along racial lines over the troubled African nation.

The deal to monitor the Zimbabwe election has saved the group of former British colonies from a serious split between the richer, predominately white, nations, and the bloc of predominately black African nations.

Under the compromise, the Commonwealth will hold off on punishing Zimbabwe for breaching the organization's democratic principles until the leaders of Australia, South Africa and Nigeria assess the elections.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who will be on the review team, told reporters the compromise agreement is fair and does not mean the Commonwealth has lost its influence. "I think your accusation would have been valid if what we had done was to say we'll get the observers report we'll get the three heads of government to have a look at it and then make a recommendation at the next meeting of the Commonwealt," he said.. " I think you would have had a valid point then…that would have been weak."

If the observers rule the polling in Zimbabwe is not free and fair, they can suspend the troubled African nation from the Commonwealth or impose sanctions. Sanctions will not have to wait until the next Commonwealth meeting, in two years.

In a one-page statement, the Commonwealth expressed its "deep concern about incidents of violence and intimidation surrounding the election campaign."

Zimbawe's president, Robert Mugabe, stands accused of electoral fraud and fueling an atmosphere of violence and intimidation toward political opponents ahead of vote late this week. Mr. Mugabe is seeking to extend his 22-year rule.

Britain and Australia led calls for tougher action, including economic and trade sanctions on the east African nation, or suspending it from the Commonwealth.