Blair plans to discuss Zimbabwe at summit

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is "likely to discuss" Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia in October, the Foreign Office said yesterday. It will be the first time the Prime Minister has broken his public silence over the deteriorating position in the country.

Pressure has been mounting, both in Britain and abroad, for Mr Blair to use his influence to help opposition party members and white farmers who are under attack from the governing Zanu-PF party in the former British colony.

Britain's policy since Labour's re-election has been to maintain a low profile over Zimbabwe and allow Nigerian and South African leaders to lead mediation efforts.

However, threats last week from the regime against Basildon Peta, The Independent's correspondent in Harare, prompted the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to break the Government's silence and condemn them.

Mr Peta's appearance at the top of an alleged hit list of Zimbabwean journalists and reports yesterday of the re-emergence of a campaign by ruling party militants to force all white farmers to leave the country prompted the Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, to call on Mr Blair to "get much tougher" with President Robert Mugabe's regime.

Supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition, who protested outside the country's high commission in London on Saturday, criticised Britain for failing to intervene. The Tories also attacked the Government, saying it was "paralysed". Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "It is an embarrassment that Britain is unable to say anything about Mugabe."

Mr Straw and other Commonwealth foreign ministers will meet their Zimbabwean counterpart, Stan Mudenge, in Abuja, Nigeria next month. The 6 September meeting – the first high-level encounter between Britain and Zimbabwe for a year – is widely seen as a prelude to the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane, Australia, at the end of October.

Mr Blair has pledged to focus on Africa during his second term in office. He was most recently in contact with President Mugabe last month when he answered a surprising letter from the Zimbabwean leader, congratulating him on Labour's second term. But if the Government shows strong interest in Zimbabwe it may play into the hands of Mr Mugabe, who has a propensity for rounding on "British imperialism".

British ministers have expressed concern that Zimbabwe's decision to ban the BBC has been extended to sports correspondents wishing to cover a cricket tour planned for October. Richard Caborn, the Sport minister, said the England cricket team should reconsider taking part in the fixture if BBC journalists were banned from covering it.

Mr Caborn telephoned Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, on Saturday to discuss the ban. Mr Lamb has approached the Zimbabwean cricket authorities to ask them to use their influence to reinstate the BBC reporters.

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