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Group urges fuming Mugabe to take a breather

Abuja (Nigeria), Dec. 6 (Reuters): The executive head of the Commonwealth urged a fuming Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to “take a breath” today before quitting the group in retaliation for his suspension over democratic failings.

Mugabe made his clearest threat yet today to withdraw from the 54-nation club of former British colonies, saying in Zimbabwe: “If we say we are doing this, we will do it. We will never retreat.”

Thousands of miles away at the Commonwealth summit in Nigeria, secretary-general Don McKinnon virtually simultaneously sent Mugabe a message to reconsider his repeated threats to withdraw.

“I would hope that President Mugabe would take a breath on this one and realise that the Commonwealth meeting here in Abuja does want to engage with Zimbabwe,” McKinnon said.

“I believe the benefits of countries belonging to the Commonwealth certainly vastly outweigh not belonging to the Commonwealth. I would believe that the population of Zimbabwe would wish to be heard on a matter such as that.”

The brinkmanship will come to a head tomorrow when a six-strong committee of “wise men” comprising Commonwealth leaders is due to recommend specific criteria for eventually allowing Zimbabwe back into the group.

The racially-charged Zimbabwe row has dominated the four-day biennial summit in the Nigerian capital of Abuja to the frustration of many delegates eager to discuss other topics like fair trade, AIDS and terrorism.

Western nations are leading a majority faction that insists Zimbabwe must return to democracy before ending the suspension, while some African states backed by other poor countries accuse Britain and others of imposing a new imperialism.

“They must stop their colonial ways... stop dominating us in the Commonwealth,” Malaysia’s New Straits Times newspaper quoted its foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, as saying.

“Why must we be told to do certain things by the white members of the Commonwealth'”

After today’s meeting of his ruling Zanu-PF party, Mugabe said the Commonwealth had been hijacked by racists interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs. But he gave no indication of when the southern African country would withdraw.

The group suspended it last year on the grounds that Mugabe had rigged elections and was harassing its opponents.

McKinnon said “no amount of threatening language” would sway the organisation from its insistence on democracy.

The six leaders met earlier today but had not reached consensus by the time the Commonwealth’s full complement of kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers headed to host President Olusegun Obasanjo’s luxurious villa for a private retreat.

The task force is made up of leaders from Australia and Canada, who oppose readmission; from Zimbabwe’s neighbours Mozambique and South Africa, who are in favour; and from India and Jamaica, whose positions are less known.

Some African leaders suspect the anti-Mugabe stance is motivated more by his confiscation of white-owned farms for landless blacks than the rights of the majority population.

“I would favour it coming back into the fold, maybe with conditions,” Botswana President Festus Mogae said. “I favour constructive engagement within the club.” McKinnon, a feisty former foreign minister of New Zealand, was re-elected yesterday by a margin of 40 to 11, in what many had seen as a proxy for how to treat Zimbabwe.

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