Zimbabwe opponents begin talking about talks

JOHANNESBURG: Zimbabwe's ruling party began preliminary discussions with the opposition Thursday in an effort to settle a political crisis in which both sides stake a claim to the nation's presidency.

"Yes, they began talking today, with our facilitation team present," said Mukoni Ratshitanga, spokesman for South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, who is the regional mediator in the dispute.

But Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the Zimbabwean opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, played down the significance of the meeting. "These aren't really talks," he said. "They're talks about whether to have talks, really just a consultation."

Both sides have mentioned the need for some sort of unity government, though the ruling party, ZANU-PF, demands that President Robert Mugabe remain on top while the opposition party insists on its candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe in a March election but then pulled out of a June 27 runoff, citing a campaign of state-sponsored violence against opposition officials and supporters.

For days, the Movement for Democratic Change has said that no talks were possible until that violence ceased, saying that the death toll now exceeded 100.

The meetings Thursday, held in Pretoria, may prove to be nothing more than finger-pointing. But the fact that any discussions are occurring at all is something of a victory for Mbeki, who is a Mugabe ally of long standing and whom the opposition has accused of bias in the mediation. Mbeki traveled to Harare last weekend but failed to get Tsvangirai to meet with Mugabe.

Neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai has gone to Pretoria. Chamisa said the Movement for Democratic Change would be represented by its secretary general, Tendai Biti, who was only recently freed on bail on treason charges. The ZANU-PF negotiators are Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labor Minister Nicholas Goche, according to Zimbabwe's state-run newspaper The Herald.

"We have a number of conditions before real talks can start," said Chamisa. "The violence goes on. ZANU-PF has exhibited an entire catalogue of bad faith and that's an impediment to any negotiations."

Indeed, the bloodletting continues. In the pre-dawn hours on Monday, hundreds of people displaced by earlier violence were attacked at a rehabilitation center near Harare. Victims blamed the assault on ZANU-PF militia.

"Where do I go now?" asked an opposition activist contacted by phone. He was afraid to have his name appear in the newspaper. "Someone who escaped with me was killed. I don't know what to do or where to go. This city is too small for me now and there is no protection."

Weeks ago, charitable organizations were ordered by the Mugabe government to stop helping the country's poor and the hungry. Church groups and other volunteers are hastily attempting to step into the breach. The number of displaced people is estimated in the tens of thousands.

"We're feeding a thousand people, men, women and children, and that's just a small part of the displaced," said a volunteer in Harare who was also afraid to have her name published. "People - white and black - have been very generous with what little they have: money, tooth brushes, oil, soap, whatever. We can feed people but we can't help them if the government is going to root them out and attack them."

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