A behind-closed-doors diplomatic manoeuvre to isolate Robert Mugabe emerged yesterday as the Zimbabwean president was offered an international deal on land reform.
The agreement, struck in September 1998 between the Zimbabwean government, the farmers and international aid donors, meant the West would fund land redistribution in return for fair elections, an end to violence and the imposition of the rule of law.
African leaders at Friday's conference in Victoria Falls appeared to be rallying behind Mr Mugabe in urging Britain and the West to make good that commitment. But Britain reacted positively to the statements of African leaders, including South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, indicating that there had been an element of co-ordination between Britain and the Africans.
In a first sign that the Victoria Falls talks might be bearing fruit, police moved to free two white farmers, Ian Miller and Chris McGraw, who had been abducted by self-styled war veterans in the Bindura area north-east of Harare.
Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, said the African leaders' statement should be viewed by "reading the African tea-leaves, not looking through a London telescope".
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If anyone expected them to come out and denounce Mr Mugabe, they were extraordinarily ill-informed. That was never going to be the case."
And in a statement ahead of the arrival in London of a high-level delegation from Harare, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, insisted his agenda for change in Zimbabwe was shared by the presidents of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. Mr Cook said: "I share the priorities of the three African presidents. They want a fair programme of land reform. So do we. They want the violence to stop. So do we. They want a return to dialogue and an end to confrontation. So do we. We have now got dialogue back on track."
He said he was ready to start discussions with the Zimbabwean delegation on Thursday on the basis of the 1998 agreement. But he added: "It has to be a programme that is within the rule of law and helps the rural poor. And the occupations have to stop. The farmers and Zimbabwe both need a solution that brings an end to the occupations and the violence."
The Foreign Secretary has been fiercely criticised by political opponents in Britain for failing to act swiftly and firmly enough to bring Mr Mugabe into line following the murders of two white farmers sympathetic to the Zimbabwean opposition party, one policeman, and 10 black members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But senior Foreign Office sources insisted last night that Mr Cook had been engaged in "24-hour hotline diplomacy" and had personally ensured that African leaders met last week and began talks.
The Government is, however, being careful not to be seen to be playing the colonial master. Mr Hain told The Independent on Sunday: "Zimbabwe is an independent sovereign state and has been for 20 years. Some people in the British press and the Conservative Party seem to think it is send-in-the-gunboats time but, apart from the fact that Zimbabwe is landlocked, there needs to be a Zimbabwean and African solution to what is a Zimbabwean and African problem." In a further sign of pressure on Mr Mugabe, Mr Mbeki yesterday postponed a visit to Zimbabwe, scheduled for early May, until after that country has held parliamentary elections.
A South African foreign ministry spokesman, Ronnie Mamoepa, said Mr Mbeki met Mr Mugabe on Friday and agreed to reschedule the state visit. No reason was given for the postponement of the visit, which was strongly criticised as an inappropriate endorsement of Mr Mugabe shortly before the parliamentary elections, which must be held by August but are expected in May.
Meanwhile in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, hundreds of friends and well-wishers turned out yesterday to bid a tearful goodbye to the murdered white Zimbabwean farmer Martin Olds.
"He was a man of uncompromising principle. His word was his bond," Olds' brother-in-law David Gifford told the packed St Andrews Presbyterian Church. "Here lies one amazing bull of a man," he said, choking back tears.
Mr Olds, 44, was bludgeoned and shot to death on Tuesday when his Compensation Farm was attacked by more than 100 people wielding AK-47 assault rifles, machetes and metal poles.
"I believe the government and the president are to blame," Reverend Paul Andrianatos told more than 600 mourners who packed the church and spilled outside. "He [Mugabe] is a criminal. He is the enemy of the state."
Mr Olds' disabled wife, Catherine, and her two teenage children, Martine and Angus, sat with his mother Gloria, brother David, sister-in-law Laura and their daughter Mandy in the front pew, alternately crying and cuddling each other.
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