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Confusion Over Political Dialogue In Zimbabwe - 2004-02-09

There is confusion in Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition about claims by South African President Thabo Mbeki that the two sides have agreed to start a dialogue. President Mbeki told supporters Sunday that the Zimbabwean parties have agreed on an agenda for negotiations leading to parliamentary elections.

Zimbabwe's justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said Monday he knows of no new developments on any dialogue or talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Mr. Chinamasa has been appointed by the ruling Zanu P-F party to be its main negotiator with the opposition.

He said the South African government should be asked about President Mbeki's statements.

The opposition party's secretary general, Welshman Ncube, says the only information he has had about any dialogue comes from the South African media quoting President Mbeki.

President Mbeki visited Zimbabwe in December to try to facilitate talks between the two parties, and extracted a public concession from Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe that dialogue with the opposition was necessary. Mr. Mbeki has told several foreign leaders, including President Bush, that a process designed to address Zimbabwe's political and economic problems would be in place by June.

On Sunday, Mr Mbeki told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that a draft agenda for talks was agreed to in December, and that the start of the dialogue was delayed only because senior officials from both sides were on vacation.

But in Zimbabwe, both sides deny an agenda has been agreed to or that any talks about talks are in progress.

Mr. Chinamasa and Mr. Ncube both say they met each other for a series of discussions on a possible new constitution earlier last year. But they say those discussions ended more than seven-months ago.

Zimbabwe's next parliamentary elections have to be held by July of next year. Mr. Ncube says the opposition wants electoral reform before that voting to be part of any inter-party talks.

He said if there is no reform of the electoral processes, the Movement for Democratic Change leaders would debate whether to participate in the parliamentary election.