Commonwealth crisis meeting on Zimbabwe talks

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw will join six other Commonwealth foreign ministers for crisis talks on Zimbabwe's controversial land reforms in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, today.

With calls mounting for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the Commonwealth because of violence against white farmers, the one-day talks are aimed at pre-empting a showdown at the Commonwealth summit in Brisbane next month.

On the eve of the Abuja meeting, Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, accused Britain of breaking its promise to help resolve the land issue by raising "extraneous" matters, such as the rule of law, treatment of the judiciary and the media, and the general political environment. He said: "Britain should help us resolve the matter, the two victims – the white farmers and the government of Zimbabwe."

In the latest wave of violence against farmers, militant supporters of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party have launched aggressive door-to-door campaigns in the Makoni West constituency, assaulting peasants who fail to produce the party's membership cards ahead of a crucial by-election this weekend.

Villagers said Zanu-PF officials had been distributing government-bought seed and fertiliser packs to those who showed membership cards. Those who produced cards were also taken to white-owned commercial farms and asked to peg out plots of land in exchange for pledging to vote for the Zanu-PF candidate.

Militants also besieged the farm of the former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith on Tuesday and told him to leave. Mr Smith, 81, said a group of war veterans had stormed into his yard through a back entrance, wielding axes and machetes. He said: "I told them they could not have my farm which I have owned for the past 55 years and which is one of the most productive farms in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's state-controlled Herald newspaper accused Britain yesterday of a concerted effort to isolate Zimbabwe in the run-up to the Brisbane summit. British officials, meanwhile, stressed the importance of today's meeting, but played down any suggestion that a compromise was in sight, saying they were going to Abuja with an open mind.

Britain has spent recent months trying to counter Zimbabwe's depiction of the dispute as a bilateral issue between an independent black country and its former colonial power. British officials insisted the meeting would be chaired by Nigeria, the host country, and Nigeria would control the agenda. The officials suggested that talk of suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth was premature.