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3 African Presidents End Talks with Mugabe, Meet Opposition Leader - 2003-05-05

The presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi have concluded talks in Harare with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the country's opposition leaders. The talks are being viewed as the most serious effort so far by African leaders to try to resolve Zimbabwe's deepening political and economic crisis.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and his South African counterpart, Thabo Mbeki, arrived in the Zimbabwe capital early in the day and immediately went into talks with President Mugabe at a hotel in the capital. They were later joined by Malawi President Bukili Muluzi.

Nigeria and South Africa have given Mr. Mugabe crucial diplomatic support since Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis began three years ago.

South Africa has also given Zimbabwe substantial economic assistance by extending lines of credit for electricity and, to a lesser extent, fuel.

South African leaders have sought, behind the scenes, to persuade the Zimbabwe government to ease up on its repression of opposition groups, particularly the Movement for Democratic Change. But according to political observers, all these efforts have failed.

Meanwhile, President Mbeki has been criticized internationally for his support of Mr. Mugabe, including land policies that economists say is the main cause of Zimbabwe's financial crisis.

After meeting with Mr. Mugabe, the three visiting presidents then met with Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

According to the South African delegation, those talks focused on establishing a climate for negotiations between the MDC and the ruling ZANU-PF.

The MDC agreed unconditionally to make itself available for talks with ZANU-PF to try to resolve the crisis.

But behind the public agenda, one issue is at the center of attention, the prospects of Mr. Mugabe's early retirement. The Zimbabwe president says he will not go yet, and the Nigerian, South African and Malawi leaders say they will not ask him to go.

If his retirement was discussed, no one was saying.