Britain demands peace deal in return for land help

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The Independent Online

Britain will offer Zimbabwe a new start tomorrow with help to redistribute land - but only on condition that occupations of white-owned farms cease, that violence against farmers and opposition figures ends, and that the rule of law is re-established.

A Zimbabwean team, led by the Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, and John Nkomo, who, as Minister for Local Government and National Housing is responsible for the land question, were last night due to leave Harare for London for talks with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and George Foulkes, the International Development minister.

On the table, essentially, will be the offer formulated at the 1998 Harare conference, for funding of a land redistribution programme, backed by donors including Britain, the United States, the European Union and the World Bank.

In a first phase, some 100 farms were identified, but the scheme petered out as Zimbabwe's internal situation deteriorated and the US and other key participants withdrew their support. From the outset, the scheme was built around a so-called set of "13 principles", notably that land transfers be fair and transparent - in other words on a "willing seller, willing buyer basis" - and that they contribute to alleviating poverty.

But even before the current crisis, President Robert Mugabe was widely violating these conditions, handing chunks of prime appropriated land to affluent cronies and henchmen. Now, with tensions immeasurably higher, Mr Cook will reiterate the demands he put to Mr Mugabe at their frosty meeting at the EU-Africa summit in Cairo earlier this month that the rule of law be restored.

Since then, there have been mixed signals at the official level, with Mr Cook professing to detect a softening of Mr Mugabe's language, that white-owned farms would be "acquired" rather than confiscated. But within days, Mr Mugabe was calling white farmers "enemies of Zimbabwe" and refusing to call off the squatters. Complicating matters further, the farm issue is now part of the growing conflict between the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, as Mugabe supporters target farmers known to be sympathetic to the MDC.

"These talks are not just going to be about land," British officials said last night, adding that they would be demanding firm guarantees of a return to the rule of law, and assurances of free and fair elections, once expected next month but now likely to be postponed until July or August. Britain meanwhile is trying to put backstage pressure on Mr Mugabe to change his behaviour.

The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, whose help and that of several other African leaders has been enlisted by Mr Cook, yesterday described the Zimbabwe crisis as "extremely dangerous," and said if it was not handled properly it "could get still worse".

Mr Annan has spoken several times lately to the Zimbabwean President, urging him to reduce tensions, but with scant visible effect.