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South Africa's Mbeki Meets with Mugabe, Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe - 2003-12-18

South African President Thabo Mbeki has held talks Thursday with Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and has also met with its opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mr. Mbeki came to Zimbabwe to assess progress in talks between Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

This was Mr. Mbeki's first meeting with Mr. Mugabe since the South African president failed to convince Commonwealth leaders to end Zimbabwe's suspension from the organization at its summit in Nigeria earlier this month.

While the South African leader gave no details of the talks before flying home, he has made it clear he is eager to get a resolution to Zimbabwe's problems. Mr. Mbeki told President Bush earlier this year that there would be a resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis by next June.

After his meeting with Mr. Mugabe, the South African president then held separate talks with officials of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

A top official of the MDC, Welshman Ncube, said the party's leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, told Mr. Mbeki that there was no way out of Zimbabwe's crisis except through dialogue, and that the opposition was ready for talks.

Mr. Mbeki also reportedly indicated to the opposition that Zimbabwe's leader acknowledged to him that dialogue between the opposition and the ruling ZANU-PF party was necessary and urgent.

Earlier this month, at ZANU-PF's annual congress, Mr. Mugabe told his party faithful that there was no need to hold talks with the MDC.

Brief peace talks between the two parties, brokered by the South Africans, ended last year without any progress. Since then there have been unofficial contacts between the MDC and ZANU-PF on aspects of a new constitution. But there has been no official contact between the two parties for more than four months.

Most Zimbabwean and some South African political analysts say that Mr. Mbeki wants a political solution in Zimbawe that involves Mr. Mugabe's retirement but leaves the ruling ZANU-PF party in power, at least for a while.

Mr. Mbeki has a policy of not criticizing Zimbabwe's leader in public. At the recent Commonwealth summit in Nigeria, it became clear that Mr. Mbeki's approach to Zimbabwe no longer has uniform support, either in the region or in Africa as a whole.

The economic situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated gravely, particularly in the last three months, with official rates of inflation hitting 620 percent, although private sector economists say the real figure is more than 1,000 percent.

The United Nations this week announced it had extended for six months its emergency program to feed more than five million Zimbabweans, or nearly half the country's population.