Africa backs unity rule in Zimbabwe

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African leaders have dealt a blow to the presidential hopes of Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwe opposition leader, at the end of two days of fractious summit talks which have failed to break the deadlock in the country's political crisis.

The 53-nation African Union (AU) issued a statement calling for a government of national unity in Zimbabwe, breaking their solidarity with Robert Mugabe and eroding his claim to be the legitimate President of the country after his re-election last week.

But the resolution failed to indicate who would be in charge of putting the national unity government together, leaving effective power with Mr Mugabe, who made it clear during the summit that he intends to continue as President. The 84-year-old leader flew to the summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh after being sworn in to a sixth term of office following a run-off vote against Mr Tsvangirai, which was internationally condemned as a sham.

In a further setback for the opposition leader, the AU in effect endorsed the much-criticised mediation of the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, by saying that the efforts of the regional Southern African Development Community should continue.

British and American officials had lobbied on the margins of the summit for the leaders to recognise Mr Tsvangirai as the winner of the first round of the Zimbabwe election on 29 March, and to place him in charge of the transition period. Reacting to the AU resolution last night, the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, stressed that "the European Union will accept no government other than a government led by Mr Tsvangirai". France currently holds the EU presidency.

But Mr Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, said of the Western pressure: "They can go hang. They can go and hang a thousand times... The way out is the way defined by the Zimbabwe people free from outside interference, and that is exactly what will resolve the matter."

He specifically ruled out any comparison with Kenya, where a unity government took office after negotiations to end political violence and insisted Mr Mugabe would not step down. "He's a few days into office and you expect him to retire, do you? ... Why is the issue of the retirement of the President of Zimbabwe such an obsession for the West?" he said at the summit. "He has come here as President of Zimbabwe and he will go home as President of Zimbabwe, and when you visit Zimbabwe he will be there as the President of all the people of Zimbabwe."

The AU statement encouraged both sides to live up to promises to start dialogue to promote peace and stability. But both sides remained far apart, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change strongly denied a South African newspaper report that Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe had struck a deal.

Mr Mugabe's presence generated a split within the AU over his handling of the elections, which took place amid a campaign of officially orchestrated violence.

Yesterday, Botswana took the unprecedented step of breaking the closed-door consensus that is the hallmark of AU summits and issued a statement calling for Zimbabwe to be barred from attending AU and regional meetings. But other critics, including the leaders of Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, held their counsel.

The crisis is now set to move to the UN Security Council, where the US has been discussing with European powers a draft resolution providing for a global arms embargo and assets freeze against the Zimbabwean elite, although China says it is against the move.