Africans defend Mugabe over summit

African diplomats presented a united front on Saturday to support Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s presence at an upcoming European Union-Africa summit despite strong European reservations.

“The African Union wants all African countries to take part” in the summit in Lisbon in December, an official from the pan-African body’s headquarters in Addis Ababa said.

The official, who requested to remain anonymous, contradicted comments by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who claimed the AU had offered to talk Mugabe out of travelling to Portugal.

The 83-year-old firebrand Zimbabwean leader has come under a barrage of international criticism for violating political and human rights in his country and plunging it into a disastrous economic crisis.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made it clear Mugabe was not welcome at the summit, but Mugabe has brushed away criticism from his country’s former colonial power and shown no sign of backing down.

“Zimbabwe, in spite of the crisis, is an African country and we are defending principles here. We have asked Mugabe to talk to his opposition but the AU respects the principle of non-interference,” said one official from the African Union’s Peace and Security Committee.

“We resort to interference only in extreme cases of violence or genocide.”

“It is not the only country not to respect democracy, look at Togo, Niger … Zimbabwe’s problem is mainly with London; it’s a bilateral issue and is none of our business. If the Europeans really insist on this point, the summit risks falling through,” the official added.

Originally planned to take place in April 2003, the summit was repeatedly postponed due to the adamant refusal of several European countries to host Mugabe over his rights record.

Britain and other European powerhouses have urged the AU to use its leverage and convince Mugabe to let his country be represented at the summit by another official, so far in vain.

“On this file, the AU’s position is clear and resolute: all member countries should take part in the Lisbon summit. As Zimbabwe head of state, Robert Mugabe should take part,” another high-ranking AU official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, AU Commission chairperson Alpha Oumar Konare and the current president of the organisation, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, had reaffirmed their position to visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“We want the next EU-Africa summit to be a success and herald a new partnership. All Africans should be invited, this is the basis of this new partnership,” Konare said.

Merkel, who is now in South Africa, lamented the plight of Zimbabweans but stopped short of backing Brown’s tough line.

“The situation is a very difficult one. It’s a disastrous one, which I very clearly stated in our conversation,” she said Friday.

She said African countries themselves should be left to decide who attends the talks in Portugal. — AFP

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