Mugabe promises elections in May but rift remains

Frosty exchanges as Cook exacts commitment to democratic process from defiant president
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Zimbabwe and Britain yesterday vented their grievances at a frank meeting focusing on President Robert Mugabe's controversial land reforms that have poisoned relations between the two countries.

Although Mr Mugabe promised elections would go ahead as scheduled in May, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, stressed after their "honest and open discussion" that he did not underestimate the difficulties that lay ahead.

On the sidelines of a summit of African and European leaders in Cairo, the two men had their first meeting since the Commonwealth summit in Durban in November, when bilateral relations were already strained. They took a further dive at the weekend when police appeared to allow hard-line supporters of the president's Zanu-PF party to attack pro-opposition protesters.

Hundreds of white farms in Zimbabwe have been occupied by squatters, many claiming to be war veterans, apparently under the direct orders of Mr Mugabe, which would be in direct violation of court orders.

After the meeting, mediated by the Nigerian President Obasanjo, Mr Cook said he expected the squatters to be evicted and the rule of law adhered to. He said "real change" must occur in Zimbabwe before British concerns could be lifted.

"I would stress this is the beginning of a dialogue. It is not the end of our concerns. Only real change on the ground can remove those concerns." He welcomed Mr Mugabe's promise to hold the elections on time, and added: "My objective is to make sure the people of Zimbabwe can themselves choose who they wish to rule them."

Before the meeting, Zimbabwe's leader was throwing punches, accusing Britain of reverting to its "bad old colonial impulses". He said: "Britain is trying to teach us how to run our country and naturally we take exception to that. We are not a British colony any more. Britain has no right - no right at all- to try to suggest to the rest of the world that we are a failure."

In the run-up to the summit's opening, Mr Cook had gone on the offensive again by urging the European Union to provide independent monitors for Zimbabwe's elections, which Mr Mugabe had postponed from April. There had been concerns that they may not take place until July.

Mr Cook also invited Mr Mugabe to send a delegation to London to explore issues of concern. On the land reform issue, he said Britain was willing to help fund Zimbabwe land reform "provided it assists in tackling the problem of rural poverty" and "provided it was within the rule of law". The Foreign Secretary said neither side apologised for comments made by London and Harare in their months-long dispute.

The European Union yesterday also made its disapproval of Zimbabwe plain. Paul Nielson, the European Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, met Mr Mugabe and emerged saying he had "expressed his concern" for the rule of law.

Europe now appears to be leaning away from the tactic, suggested in the aftermath of the weekend violence, of suspending its annual 140m euros (£85m) package of aid and trade concessions to Zimbabwe. No action on aid should be taken for the time being, said Mr Nielson. "I would warn against stopping the co-operation as the only way of being able to influence a country."

Several countries are reviewing bilateral aid packages to Harare, including Sweden and Britain.

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