Zimbabwe crisis talks open today helped by South Africa and Nigeria

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The Independent Online

Negotiations between Zimbabwe's rival political parties – brokered by South Africa and Nigeria to end the crisis in the country – are underway.

A top South African official is due in Harare today to get talks going.

The leader of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, told The Independent yesterday that his party had agreed to meet with Zanu-PF as part of plans by the Commonwealth "troika" of the South African President, Thabo Mbeki; Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, to bring the two sides together.

But he warned that tough remarks made by President Robert Mugabe at the weekend, castigating Britain and the MDC, had already put the talks in jeopardy, and urged South Africa and Nigeria to secure a public commitment to the talks from Mr Mugabe.

Mr Tsvangirai said: "If there is no commitment from us as leaders then we might as well not start the talks." He said his party's main agenda for the talks would be a re-run of last month's presidential election.

"The critical question is restoration of legitimacy to government and we have to go back to the people," he said. He again rejected the idea of joining a government of national unity with Mr Mugabe.

He said that if Mr Mugabe did not want an immediate re-run of the elections, he should allow an international commission of inquiry to investigate the entire electoral process.

Mr Mbeki's envoy is the secretary general of the African National Congress, Kgalema Motlanthe, while Mr Obasanjo's is an academic and diplomat, Adebayo Adedeji. The MDC delegation looks set to be led by its secretary general, Welshman Ncube. Mr Ncube is, with Mr Tsvangirai, facing treason charges for allegedly plotting to kill Mr Mugabe. Zanu-PF's team seems likely to be led by its chairman and home affairs minister, John Nkomo.

The closed talks between Zanu-PF and the MDC will exclude both leaders since the animosity between them appears to be a stumbling block. Mr Tsvangirai refused to be drawn on a date for the start of the talks, which have become crucial as violence increases after a presidential poll widely condemned as illegitimate.

The Human Rights Forum, an alliance of civic, church and rights groups, said yesterday that 16 people died in political violence in the first half of March. Of those killed, 12 were opposition supporters, five of them MDC polling agents. One was a Zanu-PF militant and three were of unknown affiliation.

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