Zimbabwe pres., opposition leader sign deal

July 21, 2008 1:41:44 PM PDT
Zimbabwe's longtime president and his bitter opposition foe met Monday - for the first time in a decade - to sign an agreement paving the way for immediate talks on resolving the country's protracted political crisis. President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed the breakthrough deal committing both sides to creating a "genuine viable, permanent and sustainable solution" within two weeks.

The talks will begin Thursday in Pretoria, the South African capital, according to an opposition official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The deal - which comes nearly three months after Zimbabwe's disputed March presidential election - also calls for preventing violence, a new constitution and restoring an economy shattered by Mugabe's government policies. There was no mention in the framework of sharing power.

The leaders called it an important first step toward resolving a standoff that has plunged a country already suffering economically into a deadly political crisis. More than 120 people have been killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands forced from their homes, rights groups say.

Mugabe said the framework will "chart a new way" for the troubled country. But the longtime leader, who in the past has accused Tsvangirai of being a puppet controlled by the West, urged negotiators to resist influence from Europe and the United States. He called on all involved to be "masters of our own destiny."

A jubilant Tsvangirai, beaming as he signed the deal, pledged that he will be "putting the interests of Zimbabwe at the forefront."

The deal brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki comes amid mounting international pressure on Mugabe, who opposition leaders and rights groups accuse of masterminding a campaign of state-sponsored election violence.

Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, garnered the most votes in the March election - buoyed by Zimbabweans frustrated by government policies that have left shelves bare of basic goods - but not enough to win outright. As elections officials stalled on setting a date for the runoff, the opposition and rights activists say the ruling ZANU-PF party embarked on a campaign of intimidation to ensure the increasingly autocratic leader's victory.

Tsvangirai eventually pulled out of the runoff, citing the deadly political violence against his supporters. Mugabe declared victory following the one-man runoff June 27.

With tensions mounting, observers and analysts earlier said a coalition government, perhaps with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister or vice president, was the only way to lead the nation out of the impasse.

Mugabe's party had said it is open to a power-sharing deal, but only if Mugabe heads any unity government. The opposition earlier said it is open to a "government of national healing" - but only one with moderate ruling party members, not Mugabe.

The deal is a diplomatic coup for Mbeki, who has insisted that dialogue - and not punitive sanctions - is the only way to deal with Mugabe, the former independence hero revered in much of Africa for leading the seven-year bush war to oust the white-minority government ruling the former British colony.

Mugabe, 84, has been in power since his country won independence in 1980. But in recent years, government policies have plunged the one-time regional breadbasket into an economic free fall.

Zimbabwe's central bank on Monday issued a new 100 billion-dollar note in a vain attempt to keep up with shortages of cash and the world's worst inflation running officially at 2.2 million percent but unofficially much higher.

Frustrated by the empty shelves, sky-high inflation and a lack of work, Zimbabweans elected the most opposition members to parliament in March since Mugabe took power 28 years ago. The interational community sought to pressure Mugabe with sanctions.

The U.S. pushed for a U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Mugabe and his top aides to punish them for allegedly overseeing political violence and to force them to negotiate. But Russia and China delivered a rare twin veto of the resolution.

The European Union was expected Tuesday to widen sanctions targeted at Mugabe and his cronies, including tightening a travel ban.

For Mugabe and Tsvangirai, it was a rare meeting between two longtime foes. They crossed paths "for the first and last time" at a 1998 Workers' Day rally when Tsvangirai was secretary-general of Zimbabwe's trade union federation, said George Sibotshiwe, a spokesman for Tsvangirai's party.

Tsvangirai, 56, became leader of the MDC in 1999.

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