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Zimbabwe Quits Commonwealth

Commonwealth officials express disappointment at Zimbabwe's decision to pull out of the grouping after its suspension was extended because of a lack of democracy.

Late Sunday, just hours after Commonwealth leaders decided to extend Zimbabwe's suspension, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe informed the alliance of mainly British former colonies his country would instead withdraw its membership.

The president of Zimbabwe said the Commonwealth is being hijacked by what he calls racist Western nations opposed to his forced redistribution of white-owned farms to blacks, and that there are other groups he can join.

Commonwealth spokesman Joel Kibazo says he fears Zimbabwe's decision to exit the Commonwealth will further deteriorate its economy, which has been in decline since the start of its land redistribution program.

But Mr. Kibazo said the Commonwealth stands by its decision to extend the suspension, because Zimbabwe was not upholding respect for human rights, good governance and democracy.

"At the end of the day what we had to do is to live by the principles of the Commonwealth and at the same time try and engage with the government of Zimbabwe," says Mr. Kibazo. 'We shall continue trying to do that. The chairman in office, the president of Nigeria, Obasanjo, will continue to do that and at the end of the day this is about the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and that is what the Commonwealth has always tried to do."

Zimbabwe has been suspended since March 2002 after Commonwealth observers said Mr. Mugabe's re-election as president had been marked by vote rigging and state intimidation of his opponents. The opposition says a crackdown on dissent has increased since then.

Speaking from Indonesia Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he believes Zimbabwe could return to the Commonwealth under a new government.

But several African leaders wanted to lift Zimbabwe's suspension immediately to end its isolation and resolve its problems within the Commonwealth. This led to three days of divisive debate over Zimbabwe, with Australia and Britain intent on maintaining the suspension.

Even before Zimbabwe's decision was made public, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed dismay that the Commonwealth summit, known as CHOGM, had been dominated by the issue of Zimbabwe.

"The issue of this CHOGM is development and democracy. That is the issue. And not much is said of development and democracy. All we are hearing is Zimbabwe," says Mr. Obasanjo. "Zimbabwe of course is important because we want to help Zimbabwe to move forward but to allow Zimbabwe to become the issue of CHOGM Abuja is rather unfortunate."

The four-day summit closed Monday with a final statement. Some diplomats are already complaining Zimbabwe had hijacked the summit, which they characterized as a failure.