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African leaders fly in for summit over land crisis


President Mugabe today hosts a regional summit as frantic diplomatic efforts continue to find a way out of Zimbabwe's ever more dangerous land crisis.

The meeting with South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique comes after squatters set fresh fires on farms near Harare yesterday, and families of white farmers fled in droves to the safety of towns.

Nearly 200 youths carrying whips, sticks and rocks attacked Alan Windram's farm in Arcturus district, 60km (35 miles) northeast of Harare, though the farmer had already left. Also yesterday, the body of a black foreman was found on the land of David Stevens, a farmer killed on Saturday.

However, there were fragile signs of a halt to the illegal seizure of farms by Mugabe supporters and veterans of the 1970s war against white rule when landowners agreed to open talks on signing over land on some 1, 000 farms occupied by squatters.

"Everyone is taking a breath and waiting," said Lisa Fulton, an official of the farmers' union. And Chenjerai Hunzvi, the veterans' leader, urged a "cessation of hostilities". Tim Henwood, the farmers' leader, said: "In the interests of national unity, I am sure we will get a result."

But any ease-up in the violence - connived at, if not actively controlled, by Mr Mugabe - in which two white farmers have already been murdered, may be purely cosmetic, lasting no longer than the summit.

The farm confrontation is becoming ever more entangled with political opposition to Mr Mugabe. Youths who rampaged through one farm at Arcturus near the capital said it was a centre for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

But Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, retorted that political attacks would not intimidate his supporters. "We are not retreating," he declared, describing Mr Mugabe as "a deranged dictator".

"We have to look positively beyond Mugabe," he said, shortly after arriving home from a week-long trip to Britain, South Africa and the US. "Mugabe is history."

But in a BBC interview, the Zimbabwe President was intransigent. The land crisis would be solved "soon," he said, ruling out UN or other outside intervention, and warning that Europeans "do not understand how closely this question touches our hearts."

Mr Mugabe is due to meet South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, President Sam Nujoma of Namibia and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique in Victoria Falls. The meeting will take place after a larger summit of internal and external belligerents in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At heavy cost to his country's crippled economy, Mr Mugabe has sent some 11,000 troops to fight in the Congo alongside forces loyal to Congo's President, Laurent Kabila, who will attend the first summit.

The agenda of the talks, to be held under the guise of a meeting of the South African Development Community (SADC) chaired, was shrouded in secrecy. But officials said President Mbeki, who has thus far carefully avoided direct comment on the crisis, will focus on Britain's obligation to support land redistribution, so as not to antagonise Mr Mugabe.

The problem lies in the terms for such assistance. Harare insists Britain must compensate white farmers for land confiscated by the government. Britain rejects this, arguing that the sales must be voluntary, and that redistribution must be transparent to ensure the land doesn't just end up with Mugabe's cronies.

Britain, which contributed £44m to land re-allocation before suspending the scheme in 1988, also insists occupied farms must be vacated before new negotiations can begin. A Zimbabwean team led by Stan Mudenge, the Foreign Minister, is due in London on 27 April for talks on the issue.

Warning implicitly that the upheavals in Zimbabwe could spill into other countries including his own, President Mbeki declared in a newspaper interview that land reform was essential in Zimbabwe - but in such a way that did not create instability in the wider southern African region.

Mr Mbeki may today be able offer Mr Mugabe assistance with Zimbabwe's economic crisis. Harare's stock market plunge 2.4 per cent to a new four-month low yesterday amid rumours of an impending devaluation of the currency.

Pretoria is believed close to finalising a proposal for a financial lifeline, originally devised as a R800m bond issue by Zimbabwe, underwritten by the South African government to finance mainly fuel and power imports to off-set the desperate shortages in Zimbabwe. But this could change.