- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have agreed to talks aimed at ending the country’s political crisis, South African President Thabo Mbeki said yesterday, but the statement was disputed immediately by the leader of the embattled opposition.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai told The Washington Times last night that he and his party had not been approached by Mr. Mugabe or his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.

Mr. Mbeki made the statement at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is visiting South Africa.

“I am happy to say that in the end they have agreed that they will now go into formal negotiations,” Mr. Mbeki said in the capital, Pretoria.

But Mr. Tsvangirai, who is battling treason charges brought by the government, said Mr. Mbeki “has been on record as saying this before.”

“Now all he has done is to say there is a firm commitment to open formal dialogue and we are waiting. But we have not been approached and we don’t know anything about any new indications or commitments by President Mugabe.”

Meanwhile, MDC spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi called on Mr. Mugabe to make a statement on the issue.

“If Mugabe has given President Mbeki renewed [pledges] that he is prepared to begin negotiations, then Mugabe himself needs to formally announce to the people of Zimbabwe that dialogue is to take place,” the spokesman said.

The Bush administration and Western governments have been critical of Mr. Mugabe’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the imploding state of the country’s economy. Political opponents have been harassed, critical media outlets have been shut down, and poverty and hunger have soared under his “land reform” program.

During President Bush’s July 2002 visit to South Africa, Mr. Mbeki had said talks were underway between the MDC and ZANU-PF, only to have both parties refute the assertion.

Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since it achieved independence from Britain in 1980, was returned to power in 2002 in an election that many international observers said had been marred by vote rigging and intimidation. The United States and many European states refused to recognize the result.

In the wake of the coercive land-reform program designed to transfer white-owned farms to landless black peasants, commercial agriculture has collapsed, basic foodstuffs are in short supply, and inflation has soared to more than 600 percent. Critics say many of the best farms were taken over by government officials.

Although the United States, the European Union and Australia have imposed travel bans and personal sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his ministers, South Africa has pursued a policy of quiet diplomacy.

Mr. Mbeki said he won the agreement on talks between the ZANU-PF and the MDC during a visit to the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in December, adding that formal dialogue would have been in full swing now but for the holiday break.

But after Mr. Mbeki’s visit, Mr. Mugabe said contacts between the two parties still were at a very preliminary stage.

“These [informal talks] are ongoing. When we are ready for formal talks, we will tell you,” he said.

Mr. Schroeder expressed concern yesterday that South Africa had not been as outspoken as many had hoped regarding its troubled neighbor. The EU sanctions against Mr. Mugabe’s government come up for renewal next month.

Earlier this week, the Zimbabwean government upheld a court order allowing the country’s only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, to resume publication after it was shut down last year for failing to comply with the country’s tough media laws.

The newspaper’s major shareholder, Strive Masiyiwa, said the eight-page edition yesterday sold more than 100,000 copies.

Agence France-Presse, citing the paper’s legal adviser, reported yesterday that the Zimbabwean government had filed urgent new appeals in court seeking to stop the publication of the popular paper.

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