Negotiations aimed at bringing free and fair elections in Zimbabwe are stalemated. Opposition leaders say they are on the brink of collapse and accuse the government of ignoring previous agreements. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern African Bureau in Johannesburg.

The head of one of two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, says the talks aimed at ending the Zimbabwean crisis are deadlocked.

Tsvangirai said the two sides had agreed that a new transitional constitution would be implemented before national elections. But he said the government of President Robert Mugabe government has backtracked on the accord.

"We agreed to lay the groundwork for a free and fair election based on the transitional constitution," said Tsvangirai. "Now, to say that we will have the constitution after the elections is a 'fait accompli' we are not going to accept."

The two sides had made considerable progress in nine months of talks brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki. They agreed to roll back laws restricting freedom of the news media and political activities by the opposition. The reforms were passed by parliament last month and are waiting to be signed into law.

But the opposition says the government is ignoring many of the agreements and is already preparing for the vote scheduled for March.

Mr. Mugabe was overwhelmingly endorsed as the ZANU-PF candidate for a sixth presidential term last month at a special party congress. He said then that the opposition had enough time to prepare for elections and reiterated that position in a speech this week.

"The road we are charting is going to be a very peaceful road," said Mr. Mugabi. "We don't want any fighting; we don't want any violence on that road. Let the people speak on that road."

The opposition objects, saying the two sides had agreed sufficient time would be accorded for new measures to take effect governing the elections and what was termed "the political climate."

The changes included the establishment of an independent electoral commission and measures to reduce the role of security forces, which have been accused of intimidating voters in previous elections.

Opposition leaders say instead government agencies, aided by the military, have already started setting up voter registration lists and voting districts in violation of the agreements.

The opposition wants the elections to be postponed by several months at least, and its leaders have hinted at popular protests or a boycott of the vote if their demands are not met.

South African President Thabo Mbeki has interceded personally to break previous deadlocks. But his government has been distracted by a power struggle within his own ruling African National Congress.

The confrontation came to a head two weeks ago when Mr. Mbeki was defeated in his bid for a third term as party president by his deputy, Jacob Zuma. Zuma supporters are preparing to press for important government policy changes at the meeting this week of the ANC's National Executive Committee which they now dominate.