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South African President Travels to Zimbabwe for Political Talks


South African President Thabo Mbeki has flown to Zimbabwe in an effort to break a stalemate there in talks aimed at holding free and fair elections. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg that Zimbabwean opposition parties announced they would stage a major anti-government demonstration next week.

South African President Mbeki was met in Harare by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and senior government officials.

His separate meetings with negotiators of the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, are intended to break a deadlock over talks aimed at ending the Zimbabwean crisis.

Mr. Mbeki has been mediating the talks since last March at the request of 14 southern African leaders. The talks have produced agreement on a number of issues including laws easing restrictions on political activity and freedom of the press.

South African officials say they are optimistic that the talks will be concluded soon.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said this Wednesday that Mr. Mbeki told him during a meeting in Pretoria that only a few points of disagreement remained.

"He gave me what he believes the sticking points are and his determination to try to work those through," he said.

A senior South African official speaking on the eve of the Mbeki trip said a deal was imminent. But Zimbabwe's government-owned newspaper, The Herald, reported a deadlock was on the verge of being declared.

The opposition wants a new constitution, which has already been drawn up, to be enacted before national elections scheduled for March.

The opposition also wants the election date to be postponed by three months in order to allow for better preparation and for voter education. The Zimbabwean government wants the elections to go ahead as scheduled.

The opposition is planning to stage a major demonstration next week to press its demands and highlight the suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

A demonstration nearly year ago sparked a government crackdown in which hundreds of dissidents were detained and many of them beaten.

Zimbabweans have been struggling to survive in an economy characterized by hyper-inflation, an 80 percent unemployment rate and shortages of fuel and basic goods.

The Central Bank has announced it is issuing new banknotes with denominations of $1 million, $5 million and $10 million Zimbabwean. The new denominations are aimed at easing a cash shortage.

The largest denomination, the $10 million note, is worth about $3 U.S. on the parallel market.