Commonwealth summit called off

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The sense of crisis gripping the world in the wake of the terrorist strikes has forced the postponement of next week's summit of Commonwealth leaders in Brisbane. A visit by the Queen, who was due to tour Australia and New Zealand after presiding over the meeting, has also been deferred.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, scheduled to begin a week today in the Queensland capital, would have been the largest gathering of world leaders since the attacks. The Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, announced the change of plan yesterday after leading players, including Tony Blair, pulled out.

The Canadian premier, Jean Chrétien, also withdrew, as did the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, amid escalating tensions on the subcontinent as the US and its allies prepare for military retaliation against Afghanistan for harbouring the chief terrorist suspect, Osama bin Laden.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, described the postponement as "incredibly regrettable" and said he hoped to reschedule the summit for early next year.

Mr McKinnon said in a statement that the meeting had been delayed for practical reasons, because of the "likely absence of a significant number of leaders, due to unforeseen circumstances".

He went on: "It is with a huge feeling of disappointment that I announce this decision, a feeling that I know will be shared right across the Commonwealth and beyond. In these uncertain times, it is easy to understand the desire of political leaders to be with their own people, in their own countries."

As recently as Tuesday, 45 leaders of the 54-nation Commonwealth were still planning to attend. They included the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, who was expected to come under widespread criticism for encouraging the seizure of white-owned farms.