Secret mission to solve Zimbabwe crisis

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Britain and the United States are backing a secret South African plan to persuade the Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to form a government of national unity with the Movement for Democratic Change.

The South African President Thabo Mbeki sent his deputy Jacob Zuma on a mission to Harare yesterday to persuade Mr Mugabe to embrace the opposition and make its leader Morgan Tsvangirai his vice-president. Mr Mugabe, 78, won a fifth term in office after an election over the weekend that has been widely denounced as unfair.

The Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, is also sending a message to Mr Mugabe urging him to move quickly to form a government of national unity with "substantial representation" from the opposition.

Tony Blair and the 14 other European leaders gather for a summit meeting in Barcelona today where they will plan further sanctions on the Mugabe regime.

In a Commons statement yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, accused Mr Mugabe of "stealing" the election and heading an "undemocratic and illegitimate government".

Mr Straw said yesterday that Britain would not recognise Mr Mugabe's re-election, and added that the Government would "oppose any access by Zimbabwe to international financial resources until a more representative government is in place." He did not explain what he meant by a "more representative government".

President George Bush gave the first hint that negotiations were under way, when he said this week: "We are dealing with our friends to figure out how to deal with this flawed election."

With international outrage growing and Zimbabweans preparing to flee the country en masse, Mr Mbeki wants to head off a clash between the West and Zimbabwe that would have catastrophic consequences for Southern Africa.

The Mbeki initiative is discreetly supported by London and Washington as a face-saving way out for both Mr Mugabe and Mr Mbeki's own government which has yet to criticise the outcome of the election. Both Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo are on the Commonwealth troika that is to adjudicate on the elections next week – the organisation's observer mission has already decried the elections as unfair, because of the violence and intimidation.

A senior official in the ruling Zanu-PF party told The Independent yesterday: "Mbeki and Obasanjo want Mugabe to make it easier for them to resolve the Zimbabwe issue within the Commonwealth. They think the only way to achieve an acceptable solution is for Mugabe to move fast and unite the country by bringing the opposition into the government."

The 54-member Commonwealth's credibility is now on the line, with pressure to throw Zimbabwe out of the organisation. Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo believe the only way forward is for Mr Mugabe to make peace with Mr Tsvangirai.

President Obasanjo, who unsuccessfully tried to broker a meeting between Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe during his last visit to Zimbabwe in January, is expected to travel to Harare to attempt to broker a deal. The plan calls not only for Mr Mugabe to embrace the opposition in a coalition but also insists he show more tolerance to other political opponents in civic society.

A Commonwealth observer group has already dismissed the weekend presidential election as being neither free nor fair, putting pressure on Mr Mbeki and Mr Obasanjo, who have previously defended Mr Mugabe. The Australian Prime Minister John Howard is part of the Commonwealth troika.

The initiative faces grave difficulties. While Mr Zuma was still in Zimbabwe, the police were breaking up a meeting of the country's largest civic group, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. The ZCTU, which has in the past led successful national strikes against Mr Mugabe, was meeting to discuss how best to respond to the election. It is understood that it is mobilising civic society to begin a series of mass protests.