Nelson Mandela denounces Zimbabwe chaos

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Nelson Mandela will tonight break his silence on the Zimbabwe crisis to condemn the electoral chaos engulfing the country, according to sources close to the former South African president.

Mr Mandela's words will resound across the world because of his huge moral influence. But the sources said that the former president, who is in London for a week of celebrations marking his 90th birthday which culminate with a concert on Friday, would not criticise President Robert Mugabe personally.

Mr Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail as a political prisoner during the apartheid years, is to speak at a fundraising dinner in Hyde Park attended by celebrities and Gordon Brown, whom he met at Downing Street yesterday. The former president has remained silent on the Zimbabwe crisis since the 29 March election which forced Mr Mugabe into a humiliating run-off for the presidency.

Mr Mandela is expected to express deep sadness and concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. He is not likely to make a specific call for any action, however.

The former president said in 2004 that he would not intervene publicly in politics, and tonight's statement is therefore an indication of how strongly he feels about the crisis there.

Mr Mugabe has been under mounting pressure this week to call off the second round, after his challenger, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out saying that his party could not campaign in a "war zone".

A group of African leaders today urged the Zimbabwean leader to postpone the poll, as his isolation deepened. The emergency summit of the southern African development community said that the situation was not conducive to a free and fair poll. Mr Mugabe and his associates have unleashed an officially-sanctioned campaign of intimidation targeting opposition supporters since the official results were announced on 2 May.

Mr Mandela has been criticised in some quarters for failing to speak out against the human rights abuses in the neighbouring country. After leaving the presidency, he openly took issue with President Thabo Mbeki over the Aids crisis in South Africa. But he has not criticised his successor for his "softly softly" approach with Mr Mugabe during his mediation efforts.

The gay activist Peter Tatchell, who plans to demonstrate outside tonight's venue, wrote in the Independent Open House: " His failure to condemn Mugabe's tyranny is a tragic abandonment of Zimbabweans. Mandela's silence is collusion with Mugabe's murder and mayhem. "

The Queen meanwhile took the highly symbolic move of stripping the Zimbabwean president of an honorary knighthood awarded in 1994. The Foreign office said the decision was taken "as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe over which President Mugabe has presided."