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Togo Opposition Ready to Negotiate - 2002-03-15

Opposition parties in Togo say they are ready to return to negotiations with the government after President Gnassingbe Eyadema late Thursday ordered the release of a leading political opponent. The move was part of the government's efforts to ease tensions as President Eyadema, Africa's longest sitting head of state, seeks a third unconstitutional term.

Yawovi Agboyibo, the leader of the Action Committee for Renewal party, is regarded as one of the strongest opponents of President Gnassingbe Eyadema.

Mr. Agboyibo was jailed last year for making what the government said were derogatory remarks about the country's prime minister - a close political ally of President Gnassingbe Eyadema.

Togo has been embroiled in a political impasse because of what the opposition says are efforts by the government to extend Mr. Eyadema's 35-year rule. He has been in power since 1967 and is already Africa's longest sitting head of state.

Opposition parties ended negotiations with the government last month, demanding that Mr. Agboyibo be released before they engaged in dialogue.

That release came late Thursday. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mr. Agboyibo said he believes it is time to resume dialogue. "Today, I will say that what is most important following my release is that dialogue resumes so that Togo can emerge from this impasse," he said. A constitution adopted in 1992 sets a maximum of two, five-year terms. Mr. Eyadema, whose second term runs out next year, had promised to step down in 2003. His government last year initiated efforts to amend the constitution in order for him to serve a third term.

Tensions have been especially high in Togo since February, when Mr. Eyadema's supporters in parliament passed electoral reforms that gave his supporters control of the electoral commission. Opposition parties protested, saying the changes favored Mr. Eyadema.

The impasse led to the indefinite postponement of legislative elections that had been scheduled for earlier this month.

In a statement announcing the release of Mr. Agboyibo, the Togolese president said his decision to liberate the opposition leader was a gesture of appeasement.