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Zimbabwe to Dominate Discussions at Commonwealth Meeting - 2002-03-02

Commonwealth leaders have opened a four-day summit in Australia with the global fight against terrorism high on the agenda. But the thorny issue of whether to sanction Zimbabwe is expected to dominate the summit of mostly former British colonies.

Forty leaders of the 54-member Commonwealth gathered for the summit Saturday in Coolum - on Australia's tropical northeast coast.

The Australians welcomed their guests with ceremonial Aboriginal dancing from the local Gubbi Gubbi tribe. As titular head of the grouping, Britain's Queen Elizabeth, opened the four-day meeting amid tight security.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - or CHOGM - is convened every two years but was postponed last year in the wake of September's terrorist attacks on the United States.

The leaders hope to issue a strong statement on terrorism and measures to combat the global threat. But member-state, Zimbabwe, is expected to be the most difficult topic during the summit.

At issue is whether to sanction President Robert Mugabe ahead of this month's elections. The campaign has been marred by violence, charges of vote rigging and alleged human rights abuses.

To do nothing would certainly weaken the Commonwealth, an 80-year-old body born out of the British Empire and struggling to find a true purpose in the 21st century.

The British government is leading calls for immediate sanctions against Zimbabwe, supported by Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has described President Mugabe as a "dictator," and violence against political dissidents "an outrage."

South Africa is leading the resistance to moves by the richer countries to punish Zimbabwe. Other African nations are expected to block a suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

Mr. Mugabe - among a list of notable absentees from the meeting - has accused the Britain of interfering in next week's presidential election.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon says it will be up to all the leaders to decide what to do next. "It's not for me to tell you what they decided. They have spent some time on the subject, obviously. CMAG has been engaged in with Zimbabwe since, I think, April 2000 and they have discussed and prepared a report. That report will go to the leaders and obviously it will be up to the leaders to take that issue forward," Mr. McKinnon said.

The leaders of India and Sri Lanka were among those absent due to political and religious violence at home.

The Commonwealth represents 1.7 billion people - about 30 percent of the world's population. Fifty of the 54 members are classed as "developing countries." The summit will also address ongoing problems of third world debt-relief, the gap between rich and poor nations and AIDS - especially in Africa where it has reached epidemic proportions.