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Britain Downplays Suggested Differences With S. Africa on Zimbabwe - 2003-05-14

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is in South Africa to meet with President Thabo Mbeki, and the crisis in Zimbabwe is likely to be a key point in their conversation. Mr. Straw has dismissed allegations that the British and South African policies toward Zimbabwe are incompatible.

Mr. Straw spent much of his two-day visit in Johannesburg and Pretoria, meeting with his counterpart, South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But he spent the last few hours of his trip in Cape Town so he could hold special talks with President Mbeki. The main topic of conversation was believed to be Zimbabwe. Last week, Mr. Mbeki and the leaders of Nigeria and Malawi flew to Harare for talks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai. The trio of African leaders tried to persuade both sides to return to the negotiating table and find a way out of Zimbabwe's political crisis. Mr. Mbeki was scheduled to brief Mr. Straw on their progress.

Britain and South Africa have approached Zimbabwe very differently in the past. British leaders have been openly critical of President Mugabe, while Mr. Mbeki has taken a more conciliatory tone, engaging in what he calls quiet diplomacy with his northern neighbor.

Speaking at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, Mr. Straw rejected a reporter's allegation that the two countries have drastically different stances on Zimbabwe. "I don't accept for a second that our approach and that of South Africa to Zimbabwe is completely contradictory or even contradictory. We have a common agenda," he said.

Mr. Straw called the meeting in Harare an important event. He welcomed South Africa's efforts to deal with Zimbabwe's problems. And he said Britain shares South Africa's goals.

"Like South Africa, we want to see a resumption of dialogue between ZANU-PF and the opposition; an end to intimidation and violence; a tackling of the major issues in Zimbabwe of governance, human rights and the rule of law; and a path back to a democratically elected and accountable government, pursuing policies that benefit all the people of Zimbabwe," he said. "We will work with South Africa and the region to help achieve this."

Even if the two nations do share the same goals, which some analysts dispute, the two countries have very different ways of trying to achieve them.

President Mbeki has cautioned against expecting too much change too soon. In his weekly letter to the nation Friday, Mr. Mbeki said he believes the solution to the Zimbabwe crisis will come from the Zimbabwean people. But he also said the longer the political crisis continues, the more the people of Zimbabwe will suffer.