We're here to talk about Congo, not farms, say African leaders

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The Independent Online

Leaders of African nations came to a regional summit in Zimbabwe yesterday. But while the eyes of the world were on the spiralling unrest in the country of host President Robert Mugabe, the leaders said they had convened to discuss another conflict.

Top of the agenda was the bubbling warfare in Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mr Mugabe has sent 11,000 troops to fight alongside forces of President Laurent Kabila.

Angola and Namibia, who sent representatives to the summit yesterday, also back Mr Kabila, although Uganda and Rwanda support the rebels attempting to topple the Congolese president. No representative from Congo or the rebel forces attended.

As Mr Mugabe stood waiting for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to arrive, a reporter shouted to him: "The farms are burning", and asked what he thought of the state of peace on the farms in Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe appeared to smile and said: "There is no food. We are growing wheat for bread."

After a morning session on the Congo conflict, Mr Mugabe sat down with the presidents of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique to discuss the wave of squatter invasions he has encouraged since his land distribution proposals were rejected in a February referendum. The meeting was described as a "courtesy briefing" by Mr Mugabe, said his spokesman. But regional leaders intended to pressure the Zimbabwean president to diffuse the crisis, which they fear will deeply damage investment in the region.

As violence continued to spread yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, on a visit to Kathmandu, telephonedMozambican President Joaquim Chissano and asked him to mediate in the dispute with Harare. Mr Cook told reporters in Nepal that they both agreed the farm occupations must end, before the issue of land reforms could be addressed.

Mr Cook added: "If President Mugabe is really concerned about the future of his country and the future of his people, it's time he started to assess the enormous economic damage he is doing to his people as a result of the current breakdown of the rule of law.

"It's going to hit them first and hit them hardest. It's time we got back to the rule of law and got back to building the economy." He was referring to the disruptions in bringing the tobacco crop to market because of the land invasions.

Across the country, many white commercial farmers retreated from their farms to the cities for the holiday weekend as rumours of more attacks spread. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, the regional head of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) ordered all commercial farmers in Matabeleland to abandon their farms for the weekend.

Commercial farmers, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, said the violence is increasingly aimed at black farm workers, who are often beaten unless they surrender party cards for the Movement for Democratic Change and pledge support for Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

"Severe beatings are the order of the day," said one farmer. Mr Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, said the discussion on Congo was aimed at agreeing on a plan to disengage forces fighting in Congo and create an unmanned buffer zone between them.

He said the United Nations had expressed concern over ceasefire violations and was reluctant to move ahead with a planned 5,500-man peacekeeping force until the combatants pulled back and held to a ceasefire.

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