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Commonwealth Meeting on Zimbabwe Land Reform - 2001-09-06

Ministers of the Commonwealth are meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja to discuss the contentious issue of Zimbabwe's land reform program.

After months of tense of relations between their two governments, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw shook hands with Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister Stanislaus Mudenge. The two then sat down for talks hosted by Nigeria, and attended by delegations from the commonwealth countries of Canada, South Africa, and Kenya.

The officials have gathered to find a solution to the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe. For more than a year, the government of Zimbabwe has encouraged the seizure of land owned by white farmers. The land invasions often have resulted in violence, as well as the virtual collapse of the country's economy.

In his opening remarks, Nigeria's foreign minister painted a grim picture, talking about the threat Zimbabwe's instability poses to Africa. The situation there is deteriorating by the day, he said, adding that Africa cannot afford a race war.

But Zimbabwe appeared to make a conciliatory gesture just hours before the talks. Wednesday, the government of President Robert Mugabe announced it had reached a settlement with a union of mostly-white Zimbabwean farmers. The government says it will buy farmland from the Commercial Farmers' Union that was already slated for confiscation. But Harare has called on Britain to help foot the bill.

Before sitting down for negotiations Thursday, Mr. Straw, the head of the British delegation, told reporters he was going to look positively at the discussions. Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, has also been the most vocal critic of what Mr. Mugabe calls fast-track land redistribution.

The often-violent methods used by Zimbabwe's land-grabbing so-called war veterans have also attracted international condemnation. Australian Prime Minister John Howard denounced Thursday Mr. Mugabe's policies as unacceptable and suggested suspending Zimbabwe's membership in the Commonwealth.

Australia will host a summit of the Commonwealth heads of state in Brisbane next month.