- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe | Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s party and the opposition have agreed in principle on landmark talks to end the protracted political crisis, a United Nations official said Sunday, with a pact expected to be signed imminently.

The U.N. special representative to Zimbabwe, Haile Menkerios, said the draft on the negotiating framework had been agreed to by Mr. Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, which was “at least a first step.”

Although parties involved in the talks expressed hope of an agreement being signed Monday, Mr. Tsvangirai’s personal spokesman and a spokesman for South African President Thabo Mbeki, mediator of the talks, did not confirm this.

But a spokesman for African Union commission chairman Jean Ping, also in Zimbabwe meeting with the different parties, said Mr. Tsvangirai had given an assurance that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would sign the agreement.

Mr. Menkerios said the draft, once signed, would clear the way for actual talks on the future of the crisis-ridden country to take place.

“There is a draft which we are informed the two negotiating parties have agreed to but the two principals, that is Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai, would have to sign,” he told South African public radio.

Mr. Mugabe won a one-man presidential run-off last month, widely denounced as a sham after Mr. Tsvangirai pulled out of the race due to a wave of deadly attacks on his supporters.

Mr. Tsvangirai has rejected the idea of a national unity government, saying instead he wanted a transitional administration that would pave the way for fresh elections.

The 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, has insisted the MDC has to acknowledge his victory in the runoff if there is to be any kind of power-sharing deal.

However, sources within the ruling ZANU-PF and opposition MDC say the agreement could be signed in the next few days.

The opposition leader has also said he will only take part in substantive talks once about 1,500 political prisoners are released and violence against his supporters ceases.

The MDC and ZANU-PF began preliminary talks last week aimed at establishing a framework for substantive negotiations.

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