South African leaders tell Mugabe to find peaceful solution on farms

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President Robert Mugabe's status suffered a further blow on Monday when southern African leaders ­ seen as crucial to diplomatic progress in Zimbabwe ­ called him to a meeting and insisted on a peaceful and legal solution to the land crisis in his country.

Their encounter with the 77-year-old President in the Mozambican port of Beira came as Zimbabwe's Agriculture Minister, Joseph Made, made a sharp U-turn by admitting that his government is facing a maize shortage. Mr Made, a close ally of President Mugabe, said Zimbabwe would need to import 100,000 tons of maize from South Africa in the next few months.

In Beira, under the banner of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi expressed concern that Zimbabwe's crisis could snowball across the entire southern African region were it not resolved without violence.

"Their message was the same one that the SADC leaders have been saying... let land redistribution proceed without violence," said a top Zimbabwean foreign ministry official.

The source said presidents Muluzi and Chissano had agreed that there was need for SADC to launch an initiative to appeal for international aid to fund Zimbabwe's land reform. "However, all that would be made easier if the President [Mugabe] is seen as doing something to stop commercial farm violence," said the official.

In the 18 months since government-orchestrated violence began in Zimbabwe, diplomats in Britain and other European Union countries have formed the view that President Mugabe's Achilles heel lies in the attitude of other African leaders. In past years, he could count on the loyalty of the liberation old-boy network to back him in the face of the former colonial powers. Monday's meeting featuring President Chissano ­ who was best man at President Mugabe's second wedding in 1997 ­ showed starkly that those days are over. Two weeks ago, a SADC meeting in Malawi ­ the current chair of the organisation ­ established a four-country task force to examine the land issue and its impact on investment in South Africa and other countries in the region.

On 6 September, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, will travel to a Commonwealth meeting brokered by Nigeria at which he will confront his Zimbabwean opposite number.

Mr Made's announcement on the maize shortage came after months in which he had claimed that Zimbabwe had adequate maize stocks, despite the United Nations' predictions that the country faced significant food shortages because of crop deficits caused by the weather and by violence on commercial farms. The minister told state-run media yesterday that the 100,000 tons that Zimbabwe will buy from South Africa will be stored until April or May when the country's own supplies are due to run out.

Other southern African countries affected by floods and droughts in the past two years will also need to import maize, including Zambia, which needs 300,000 tons, and Malawi, which requires 210,000 tons.

President Mugabe, meanwhile, refused yesterday to meet the head of the World Council of Churches after Zimbabwean churches criticised him for failing to halt political violence. Konrad Raiser, secretary general of the group, said that Mr Mugabe's office did not respond to requests to meet a six-member delegation on a five-nation African tour that took it to Angola, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.