Zimbabwe's opposition signs talks agreement


ZIMBABWE:AFTER WEEKS of talks, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed an agreement yesterday paving the way towards full negotiations on ending the country's ongoing political crisis, writes BILL CORCORANin Johannesburg

The men met for the first time since 1999 at Harare's Rainbow Towers Hotel, where they signed the memorandum of understanding in a ceremony overseen by South African president Thabo Mbeki, the main mediator in the crisis.

The memorandum was supposed to be signed last Wednesday, but Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Mr Tsvangirai withdrew at the last minute over concerns whether the agreement allowed for the meaningful inclusion of mediators from the African Union and the United Nations.

The issue was satisfactorily addressed during meetings between all the stakeholders in Pretoria and Harare over the weekend.

After the ceremony, Mr Mbeki told local media that all the signatories, including MDC breakaway faction leader Arthur Mutambara, wanted a rapid resolution to the crisis that has gripped the country since its disputed March 29th general election.

"It commits the negotiating parties to an intense programme of work to try and finalise the negotiations as quickly as possible. All the Zimbabwean parties recognise the urgency of the matters they are discussing, and all are committed to trying to complete this process as quickly as possible," Mr Mbeki said.

The framework agreement sets a two-week deadline for the government and two factions of the opposition MDC to get discussions under way in Pretoria.

While the five-page agreement was not immediately available, it is understood to call for an end to the violence gripping the country. But it does not go into detail about a powersharing arrangement, which many believe is the only way to resolve the crisis.

Mr Mugabe told reporters he had agreed to sign the memorandum because it was essential to charting a new way of political interaction between the parties. "We must act now . . . as Zimbabweans, think as Zimbabweans," he said.

Mr Tsvangirai explained it was time to put his "bitterness" behind him, and insisted he wanted to find a solution with his old rival. "We are committed to ensuring that the process of negotiation becomes successful . . . We want a better Zimbabwe," he concluded.

Despite the two men's public willingness to move towards a solution, it is likely that negotiations will be extremely difficult because both want to be recognised as Zimbabwe's rightful president.

The March presidential poll was won by Mr Tsvangirai, but not by an absolute majority, and in the weeks leading up to the June 27th presidential run-off the MDC claimed 120 of its members were murdered by militias loyal to the government.

Mr Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off, which left Mr Mugabe to win the election uncontested. He was sworn in as president for a sixth term despite much international condemnation.

Meanwhile, the UN has said millions of Zimbabweans are facing starvation due to the recently poor harvest and the government's pre-election decision to halt the work of NGOs, which carry out the distribution of food aid in the country.