Zimbabwe to let in election monitors as action looms

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The Zimbabwe government has made a last-minute concession to the European Union by agreeing to allow EU observers to monitor the presidential election in an attempt to avert the imposition of immediate sanctions at a foreign ministers' meeting today.

A Downing Street spokesman said the meeting in Brussels would discuss a "short, fixed timetable" for action. The ministers are expected to call for limited sanctions after a set period, if President Robert Mugabe fails to guarantee a free and fair election.

The spokesman added: "The time has come to put Mugabe on the spot."

The European Commission said yesterday that Zimbabwe had agreed to invite monitors from most EU countries except Britain, and admit journalists from international organisations apart from the BBC.

Under the latest pledge, observers from Europe and a group of developing countries will be invited to monitor the elections, to be held on 9-10 March. Candidates will be nominated on Thursday.

Talks have been continuing during the two weeks since Stan Mudenge, the Zimbabwean Foreign Minister, failed to provide details on how his government would guarantee a free and fair election. But officials say that a meeting last Wednesday led to more positive discussions of issues such as the date when observers' visas would be issued, what access they would have to all political parties and how security would be guaranteed.

Amid scepticism about the value of Mr Mugabe's promises, the ministers are expected to increase the pressure with a threat of focused sanctions, such as a visa ban on Zimbabwean leaders and a freeze on their assets abroad if, after a specified period, Mr Mugabe fails to comply. Britain remains determined to maintain pressure on Harare over the catalogue of human rights abuses.

At a meeting of Commonwealth ministers on Wednesday, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will also call for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the 54-nation organisation at a summit in March, to be held only days before the elections.

But, with less than six weeks to go to the poll, the Government has taken heed of warnings that immediate sanctions may be counter-productive. A Whitehall source said: "We believe it is important to put maximum pressure on Zimbabwe while there is still time to get observers in before the presidential elections."

The fear is that immediate sanctions would end all prospects of Mr Mugabe permitting foreign observers to monitor the elections. That, in turn, would deter opposition voters from turning out, and make vote-rigging easier.

Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, urged the EU to take a tough line at the Brussels meeting unless Mr Mugabe moved immediately to ensure a free and fair presidential election.