Zimbabwe must have free and fair vote, says Blair

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair made an impassioned plea yesterday for Robert Mugabe's regime to allow rigorous international scrutiny of the elections in Zimbabwe after three opposition MPs were arrested in the latest outbreak of pre- electoral unrest.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Abuja with Nigeria's President, Olusegun Obasanjo, on the first full day of a West African tour, Mr Blair said: "There has to be free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. There has to be the foreign press there. There have to be foreign observers there."

But President Obasanjo, a key mediator in the Zimbabwean crisis, said he was satisfied that President Mugabe was working towards fair elections and ending political violence.

"Two weeks ago I went to Zimbabwe. I made it clear to President Mugabe that the whole world, and indeed Africa, will not agree to him not allowing foreign observers, not allowing the foreign press and not doing something about political violence.

"He took this very seriously and started acting on it. I don't know what else you want. If you want us to wage war on him, Britain has that capacity, but Nigeria doesn't."

Nigeria, one of the countries that last month blocked British attempts to have Zimbabwe suspended from the Commonwealth, has privately complained that Britain wants "Mugabe's head delivered on a platter of gold".

In Harare, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party said three of its parliamentarians were campaigning in the central town of Nkayi on Wednesday when gunmen shot at their car. An MDC statement accused the army of beating up the MPs, who were then held overnight at a police station.

In a speech yesterday to the Nigerian parliament, Mr Blair stressed that no part of the world was immune from events thousands of miles away, saying that the "leafy suburbs" of the West were not beyond "the reach of bad things and bad people".

The Prime Minister said the world could not turn its back on a continent in which a child died every three seconds.

But, in a counterblast to Tory jibes that he is indulging a growing fondness for "designer diplomacy", Mr Blair said Africa needed a new partnership with the developed world "not out of desperation, but out of hope for the future".

He added: "The cynics, and as ever, there are many of them, say why should we succeed now where we have failed to make progress before? But that is what they have said throughout human history. If we had listened to them, we would still be in the Dark Ages." He added: "There never has been a time when self-interest and mutual interest were so closely dependent on each other."

Mr Blair's four-day trip is also taking in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

Britain will publish a discussion paper today setting out plans for the West to work with the continent's leaders to build up the peace-keeping capacity of African forces.

The UK is not expected to commit large numbers of troops to the region, but Mr Blair promised assistance in areas such as military training, as it does in Sierra Leone.

To aid conflict resolution in the region Mr Blair also announced he was appointing a senior diplomat as a special envoy to strife-torn Sudan.