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Mugabe Visit to French-African Summit Stirs Controversy - 2003-02-19

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe arrived in Paris Wednesday for the start of a three-day French-African summit aimed at strengthening political and economic relations between the two sides. Mr. Mugabe's presence in France has already sparked controversy.

President Mugabe is only one of more than 50 African representatives expected in Paris, but he has already captured the limelight. Groups critical of Mr. Mugabe's record on political and human rights are staging demonstrations in the French capital.

Several human rights activists also planned to file torture charges against Zimbabwe's leader, in hopes he might be arrested during his visit to France.

Critics accuse Mr. Mugabe of human rights violations, and charge his re-election as president last year was marred by widespread voting irregularities.

France's invitation to Mr. Mugabe to attend the summit was not well received by Britain and other members of the European Union, which leveled sanctions against Zimbabwe last year.

The EU reportedly gave Paris the green light to invite Mr. Mugabe, only after the French government agreed to extend the sanctions another year. At the same time, the EU decided last week to postpone its own African summit, scheduled in April, largely because of Mr. Mugabe's potential attendance. Still, the French government argues Mr. Mugabe's presence in Paris is an occasion to pressure the African leader on human rights issues.

Officially, President Mugabe is not a central figure in the French-African summit, which is advertised as launching a new economic and political partnership.

The real work on the summit gets under way Thursday following opening remarks from Cameroon's President, Paul Biya, along with speeches by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and French President Jacques Chirac.

Over the next two days, French and African leaders are expected to address issues ranging from ways to attain peace and economic development in Africa, to improving education, health care and natural resource management on the continent.

Members of some 60 non-governmental organizations are also organizing an alternative African summit, to be held alongside the official Paris meeting.