Queen embroiled in Mugabe apology row

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The Independent Online

A troublesome spat between Zimbabwe's homophobic president and a British gay activist looks likely to overshadow the Queen's visit to South Africa, which began last night.

A troublesome spat between Zimbabwe's homophobic president and a British gay activist looks likely to overshadow the Queen's visit to South Africa, which began last night.

The Queen is expected to use the occasion of a banquet tonight to express regret for the loss of life in the Boer War but, as she prepared to meet her illustrious friend, Nelson Mandela, and to open the 54-nation Commonwealth heads of government meeting it was a different apology that was the centre of attention.

Speaking in the capital, Harare, Zimbabwe's foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, insisted that the Queen had said she was very sorry that her gay subject, Peter Tatchell, hadstaged a citizen's arrest of President Robert Mugabe during his recent London shopping trip. Mr Mudenge said that Peter Hain, Minister for Africa and the Commonwealth, phoned him to "express the regret of Her Majesty over the incident".

The Foreign Office, however, said that it had no idea what the Queen thought of the "arrest" of Mr Mugabe, on torture charges, by Mr Tatchell, the leader of the gay rights group OutRage! But a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that Mr Hain had discussed the incident with Mr Mudenge.

After the incident outside a London hotel 10 days ago, a furious Mr Mugabe accused Mr Blair of setting "gay gangsters" on him in retaliation for Zimbabwe's plans to seize white-owned farms.

It was an inauspicious start to the first Commonwealth summit in South Africa, a country that was excluded from the ex-colonial family from 1961 to 1994 but which now has the most gay-friendly constitution in the world.

The issues to be discussed by heads of state, including Tony Blair, from Friday until Monday in Durban, centre on how the Commonwealth can redefine its focus towards poverty and human rights. Gay rights, per se, are not on the agenda.

Zimbabwe, with three other members - Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zambia - has been selected by some analysts as a bad pupil who should face reprimands for failing to live up to the Harare principles of good governance. But no one expected the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to have to deal with fall-out from the actions of a maverick campaigner.

Mr Tatchell "arrested'' Mr Mugabe, who was shopping in London with his wife, Grace. The "charges" cited by Mr Tatchell related to alleged human rights abuses and violations of the UN convention on torture. Mr Mugabe was also being attacked for his uncompromising homophobia. Five years ago, the President described homosexuals as "lower than dogs and pigs'' and banned a local activists' group, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz), from the Harare book fair. Last year he was embarrassed when a former president and friend, Canaan Banana, was found guilty of raping several of his male staff.

Last night Mr Tatchell accused Tony Blair of "cosying up" to the Mugabe government. "The Government's expression of regret is a shameful act of appeasement," he said.

In Harare, gay activists were claiming that the climate was worsening. Keith Goddard, a spokesman for GALZ, said that "innocent black gay men have been targeted for revenge'' in the past 10 days. He said: "One man was threatened and falsely imprisoned, another was beaten and insulted by two plain-clothes policemen. Both were blamed for the humiliation of the President."

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