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Commonwealth Summit Panel Remains Deadlocked over Zimbabwe - 2003-12-06

A panel set up at the Commonwealth summit in Nigeria to examine Zimbabwe's suspension from the group remains deadlocked.

While ceremonial events took place Saturday, including a tree-planting ceremony in Abuja's Millennium Park, a six-nation panel started work behind closed doors to determine Zimbabwe's status within the group of mainly former British colonies.

Heads of state set up the panel, so they could focus on other issues during the four-day summit, such as fair trade, the epidemic of HIV-AIDS and the spread of global terrorism.

The panel on Zimbabwe is made up of six nations: Australia, Canada, South Africa, Mozambique, India and Jamaica. A decision was first scheduled for early Saturday, but diplomats say no consensus had been reached after hours of debate.

Australia and Canada support maintaining the suspension, while the two southern African nations say it should be lifted for the sake of their region and for Zimbabweans. The position of India and Jamaica is less clear.

The Commonwealth secretary-general, Don McKinnon, a New Zealander who was re-elected to a second term, said Saturday the decision of the panel will be crucial to Zimbabwe's future.

"What they decide coming out of this group will ultimately be the way forward, the blueprint for re-engagement with Zimbabwe," he said. "Frankly, I'm looking forward to what they come with, because I do want to see us re-engage and see some progress."

Since Zimbabwe was suspended last year, its already impoverished economy has further deteriorated, prompting tens-of-thousands of Zimbabweans to seek better lives in neighboring countries.

Zimbabwe was suspended after Commonwealth observers said last year's re-election of Robert Mugabe as president had been rigged. The opposition in Zimbabwe has complained of worsening democratic conditions for three years now, including arbitrary detentions and political killings.

A spokesman for Zimbabwe's main opposition party, Paul Themba Nyathi, is in the Nigerian capital lobbying for the suspension to be maintained because, he says, Zimbabwe's government is becoming increasingly repressive.

"Mr. Mugabe had more than three years in which to put the Zimbabwean crisis right," said Mr. Nyathi. "He did nothing. If anything, he intensified oppression. He defied even his own laws. He used every opportunity to attempt to destroy independent voices. He used that opportunity to militarize the state. As far as we are concerned, only pressure is very likely to yield positive results."

Mr. Mugabe was furious when he was not invited to the summit in Nigeria. He has since said there are other clubs that Zimbabwe can join. He accuses what he calls an unholy alliance of white Anglo-Saxon countries of despising him because of his forced redistribution of white-owned farms to blacks.