Aid to be used as bargaining tool at EU meeting

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe will be confronted over its human rights record today when the European Union launches talks expected to lead to the suspension of aid to the country, and possibly to limited sanctions.

Five Zimbabwean ministers are due to attend today's meeting in Brussels, which will present the country with its last opportunity to stave off punitive action as concern mounts about the behaviour of the government under President Robert Mugabe.

Opposition politicians and journalists have reported widespread violence and intimidation in the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for March. Privately, EU officials said their hopes of avoiding a direct clash were "not high". Yesterday, the Zimbabwe government pushed through draconian new laws to curtail the work of journalists.

In an effort to demonstrate that it is not diplomatically isolated, Zimbabwe is planning to bring no fewer than 12 representatives from other developing nations to attend today's meeting. The Zimbabwean delegation includes the Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, and the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, the architect of the bill aimed at stifling the media and political opposition.

Two deadlines loom for Zimbabwe. Today's hearing is a consultation process under Article 96 of the Cotonou agreement on relations between the EU and developing countries. If Europe is not satisfied with the answers from Harare, aid can be suspended. At stake is development aid of €128m (£79m) covering 2002-07, which is unlikely to be made available without a change of policy.

On 28 January, EU foreign ministers will discuss Zimbabwe and will be under mounting pressure to impose "smart sanctions" such as visa bans or a freeze on the assets of senior figures in the government.

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