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Mbeki, Mugabe Meet in Zimbabwe - 2003-12-18

South African President Thabo Mbeki is in Harare for his first meeting with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe since Mr. Mbeki failed to convince Commonwealth leaders to end Zimbabwe's suspension from the organization at its summit in Nigeria earlier this month.

President Mbeki met with President Mugabe for several hours on Thursday, a meeting in which he said he wanted to listen and to learn. Mr. Mbeki said Zimbabwe and South Africa have common problems and can help each other.

The South African leader has made it clear he is eager to get a resolution to Zimbabwe's problems. Mr. Mbeki told President Bush earlier this year, that there would be a resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis by next June.

Most Zimbabwean and some South African political analysts say that Mr. Mbeki wants a solution that involves Mr. Mugabe's retirement, but might leave the ruling ZANU-PF party in power, at least for a while.

ZANU-PF and South Africa's ruling African National Congress both fought wars to end white domination.

It was this shared history that both Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Mugabe recalled at Harare International Airport when the South African leader arrived early Thursday. He was welcomed by several hundred singing supporters of the ZANU-PF.

Mr. Mbeki has not indicated whether or when he might reveal the substance of his discussions with Mr. Mugabe.

The South African leader also met with Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Mr. Tsvangirai's spokesman William Bango said the opposition leader got the impression that Mr. Mbeki appeared "determined" to achieve a "speedy resolution" of the Zimbabwe crisis.

Mr. Mbeki has a policy of not criticizing Mr. Mugabe in public. His officials, particularly his spokesmen Bheki Kumalo, said in advance of this visit that the South African leader would continue with the his policy of quiet diplomacy on Zimbabwe. At the commonwealth summit in Nigeria, Mr. Mbeki argued that it is better to engage with Zimbabwe than to isolate it. But the majority of Commonwealth leaders disagreed.

At the summit, it became clear that Mr. Mbeki's approach to Zimbabwe no longer has uniform support either in the region or in Africa as a whole.

Economic indicators and human rights reports, the latest one published earlier this month, show that the situation in Zimbabwe has continued to deteriorate sharply in the three years since Mr. Mbeki first took a leading role in trying to help solve the country's problems.