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Commonwealth to Lead Zimbabwe Mediation Efforts - 2003-12-07

The Commonwealth says it will lead mediation efforts between Zimbabwe's government and its embattled opposition so the country can be re-admitted into the group of mainly former British colonies. The decision was made following several days of divisive debate at a Commonwealth summit in Nigeria.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said late Sunday Zimbabwe's suspension remains, but that a new process of what he called engagement begins. "Heads of government affirmed the Commonwealth's commitment to encourage and assist the process of national reconciliation. Secondly, heads of government mandated the chairperson in office assisted by the Commonwealth Secretary General, to engage with the parties concerned to encourage and facilitate continued progress and a return of Zimbabwe to the councils of the Commonwealth and in this regard express support for the intention of the chairperson in office to visit Zimbabwe at an early opportunity," he said.

That chairperson is Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Mr. Obasanjo said he was confident sufficient progress on human rights and democratic conditions would be made in Zimbabwe so it could be re-admitted quickly into the Commonwealth. "This is a situation where you cannot really say, it will take one year, or it will take six months. We will be watching very carefully and closely the situation in Zimbabwe. If the things that have been happening in Zimbabwe is anything to go by, I would be talking in terms of months, rather than in terms of years," he said.

But Mr. Obasanjo said he was disappointed the issue of Zimbabwe's status had dominated the Commonwealth summit, which ends Monday.

The summit was marked since its start Friday by divisive debate between countries such as Britain and Australia seeking a status quo on Zimbabwe's suspension and African countries, such as South Africa and Mozambique, which wanted the suspension to be lifted immediately.

Zimbabwe was suspended last year after Commonwealth observers said the re-election of President Robert Mugabe had been marked by rigging and state intimidation. Since then, Commonwealth observers have accused Mr. Mugabe of stifling dissent and starving his own people. Opponents to Mr. Mugabe have said repression of their activities has intensified.

Mr. Mugabe was furious at not being invited to the summit in Nigeria. He says the grouping has been hijacked by what he calls a white anglo-saxon alliance opposed to his forced redistribution of white-owned farms to blacks.