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South Africa, Nigeria Call for End of Zimbabwe Sanctions

The leaders of Nigeria and South Africa has called for an end to Commonwealth sanctions against Zimbabwe. The plan is outlined in a letter from Nigeria's president, made public on Tuesday. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says now is the time to end Zimbabwe's suspension from Commonwealth councils. The statement comes in a letter to the Australian prime minister, who heads a Commonwealth committee monitoring the Zimbabwe suspension.

Nigeria and South Africa are the other members of the committee, and South African President Thabo Mbeki apparently supports the Nigerian leader's position. Mr. Obasanjo said there is no reason for the committee to meet next month, as planned.

The letter comes in the wake of his visits to Zimbabwe and South Africa in recent days. After a six hour visit to Zimbabwe, Mr. Obasanjo says he concluded that the country's land crisis is no longer a serious problem and he said the Harare government is trying to address concerns about its new press law.

Zimbabwe's land reform program has displaced tens of thousands of white farmers and black farm workers, and left most of the country's productive fields fallow. International relief agencies say more than half the population will need food donations to survive the coming months.

The press law has left most journalists who work for foreign news agencies without proper credentials, and raised fears they could be arrested as a result.

Mr. Obasanjo also said he had raised the issue of torture of members of the opposition with President Mugabe after receiving a petition from opposition member of parliament Job Sikhala. Government doctors have confirmed he was tortured while in police custody last month. Mr. Obasanjo said Mr. Mugabe denied any government involvement in such police acts. The Nigerian leader acknowledged in his letter that political violence is, in his words, fairly pervasive in Zimbabwe. But he said such violence comes from both government and non-government agencies.

The Zimbabwe opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, Moses Mzila Ndlovu, calls the stand taken by the Nigerian and South African leaders a betrayal of the people of Zimbabwe. Mr. Ndlovu told the Reuters news agency, they have chosen to stand with a dictator.

The 54-member Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe for 12 months after presidential elections last March, which international observers said were fraught with cheating. Britain and several other members want the sanctions to continue. Britain is also in a dispute with some members of the European Union, including France, who want to lift that organization's sanctions against Zimbabwe.