As talks proceed it's a dialogue of the deaf, both inside and out

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In his red-and-green crochet cap, Shaun Yearwood cut a lonely figure camped on King Charles Street in Central London yesterday. Two brown, cardboard signs sat in front of him expressing his anger as talks got under way between Britain and the three ministers dispatched to London by the Zimbabwean Government of Robert Mugabe.

But it was with the veteran president and his controversial grab of land from white farmers that Mr Yearwood's sympathies lay. One of his signs said "I love War Vets. Smash Rhodesian Farm Apartheid," in big, shaky letters. "Stop Britain's Racist Whites. Only Evacuation Policy!" demanded the other.

Mr Yearwood was apologetic about the quality of his placards. "I had to do them in a hurry, I only came down when I saw this meeting on Sky. Yes, Mugabe is a great guy," he said.

These sentiments were probably not the ones being spoken behind the huge panelled doors of the Locarno Rooms inside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Here, under the imperial splendour of the gilded ceilings, John Nkomo, Stanislaus Mudenge and Nathan Shamuyarira sat on one side of a square, mahogany table to hear Robin Cook spell out again and again Britain's conditions for a cash deal to buy out the remaining descendants of British colonists.

The Zimbabwean delegation's limousines swept into the courtyard of the Foreign Office at 11am and for the next seven hours the three ministers from Harare remained behind closed doors. Mr Nkomo, a confidant and close comrade of President Mugabe, spoke for his government, delivering, according to one source, a long, rambling discourse on the evils of Britain's colonial past. Speaking for Britain, Mr Cook told Mr Nkomo there would be no money to pay for land redistribution until all violence stopped and the farm squatting ceased.

At the front of the building, half a dozen supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition paced up and down. Andrea Morris carried a life-size scarecrow, dressed as President Mugabe.

Noel Kainga, a London-based Zimbabwean businessman said the land issue was a red herring. "This is not about land, it's about elections."