Zimbabwe bans political activity as crisis talks are deadlocked

British efforts to broker an end to the crisis in Zimbabwe seemed close to failure last night, with no sign of a firm commitment from Harare to end the violence and farm occupations sweeping the country so that a land reform programme can begin.

As the talks opened at the foreign office, Zimbabwean police announced a sweeping crackdown on political activities which, according to opposition parties, will jeopardise free and fair parliamentary elections.

The police invoked powers dating back to the era of white rule to restrict the movement of party supporters and ban public gatherings that threaten law and order.

For more than seven hours yesterday, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was locked in discussions with three Zimbabwe cabinet ministers. "But basically we've been talking about the same thing all day," one official said, "a respect for the rule of law as a precondition of any reallocation of land." It was not even clear if the two sides would be able to issue an agreed statement afterwards.

The Zimbabwean team, led by John Nkomo, Robert Mugabe's Minister for Local Government and National Housing, and and the Foreign Minister, Stanislaus Mudenge, arrived in London insisting Britain had a moral obligation to help finance reform, and gave no sign of yielding ground yesterday.

What Britain sees as the illegal occupation of white-owned farms, which has led to the deaths of more than 13 people, was dismissed by one Zimbabwean minister as "peaceful demonstrations" in pursuit of historic justice. Moreover, a commitment to end violence would be a tacit admission that Mr Mugabe's government was responsible for it in the first place.

And as the violence is directed ever more at the Zimbabwean opposition, Mr Cook now insists that no land scheme can come into effect until free and fair elections - theoretically scheduled for May and due by the start of August at the latest - have been held.

Mr Cook has promised a further £36m of aid from Britain over the next two years if Zimbabwe behaved "reasonably" - much of the support would be directed to farm reforms. The British assistance would be part of an international support package whose terms were laid down in 1998.

The main opposition group in Harare threw its backing behind Britain yesterday. An election date should be set "without delay", said Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Britain is adamant that no aid will be forthcoming until the violence ends, elections are held, and a plan for compensation to help the rural poor in Zimbabwe rather than President Mugabe's cronies is agreed.

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