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Summiteers anticipate the return of Pretoria: The Queen joins Commonwealth heads in welcoming prospect of South African membership after multi-racial polls

MUCH AS the Greek Cypriot government has tried to push its own problems on to centre stage at the Commonwealth summit here, it is South Africa that people are talking about. For while it used to be the Commonwealth that saw its job as rescuing South Africa, it now appears to be South Africa's job to rescue the Commonwealth.

Speaker after speaker at yesterday's opening session of the biennial Commonwealth summit looked forward to the day when a majority-ruled South Africa would re-enter the grouping. Most noticeable was the Queen herself. She does not always speak at these summits, but last night she rose to defend the grouping she heads against charges of having outlived its usefulness.

In a speech at a banquet she gave for the leaders on board the Royal yacht Britannia, the Queen said: 'You have much to deliberate, not least the possibility of South Africa joining the Commonwealth. That alone, and the contribution made by the Commonwealth to the imminent establishment of a non-racial government there, gives cause for hope and pleasure.'

The Queen injected a touch of humour on the prospect of Australia doing away with her as head of state. 'Nowadays, I have enough experience, not least in racing, to restrain me from laying any money down on how many countries will be in the Commonwealth in 40 years' time, who they will be, and where the meeting will be held. I will certainly not be betting on how many of you will have the Head of the Commonwealth as your Head of State]'

South Africa is expected to re-enter the Commonwealth after multi-racial elections next April. Thabo Mbeki, the international secretary of the African National Congress, was yesterday holding talks here about plans to send Commonwealth observers to monitor voting. The grouping is due to initiate an international pledging conference for South African development.

Scattered protests continued for a third day over the issue of the divided Cyprus. As women formed a chain for peace along the highway to Limassol, schoolchildren threw stones across the Green Line in Nicosia at their counterparts in the Turkish Cypriot North.

The Queen was yesterday given an unsolicited briefing on the Cyprus issue by the Mayor of Limassol. A frisson went through the British press corps that she had been 'cornered and upbraided', but the Mayor appears to have done nothing more than express the hope that she would one day visit a united Cyprus.

No Commonwealth summit is complete without coup rumours. This year, it was a particularly bizarre one and concerned the military leader of Sierra Leone, Captain Valentine Strasser. British diplomats revealed four British passport holders, allegedly mercenaries from Birmingham, had been arrested in the West African state for plotting to overthrow the government.

Captain Strasser continued to fascinate observers with his youthful arrogance and good looks, much to the annoyance of Commonwealth leaders. 'Don't be starry-eyed about him,' said one minister. 'For heaven's sake, he's had people executed on the beach.'

Paul Keating, Australia's Prime Minister, and John Major yesterday called on France to stop being an obstacle in the way of an agreement in the Gatt world trade talks, Reuter reports. Mr Keating called on French industrialists to stop their government ruining a deal in the Uruguay Round to protect the interests of farmers.