Blair dismay over lack of Zimbabwe action

Prime Minister Tony Blair today admitted he was disappointed with a Commonwealth decision to postpone judgment on whether to suspend Zimbabwe until after the country's controversial elections.

He said he had wanted the Commonwealth summit, meeting in Coolum, near Brisbane, Australia to have issued a far stronger statement and immediately announced tough action against President Robert Mugabe's regime.

He said only a tiny minority of countries had blocked stronger action. Instead, the gathering authorised the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria and Australia's Prime Minister John Howard to decide what action to take - ranging from a simple statement of disapproval to suspension - following a report from Commonwealth observers on the elections which take place on March 9 and 10.

But Mr Blair said he was still confident that President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria would suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth if the observers found the elections had been rigged.

Mr Blair, speaking in a round of British TV interviews, confirmed he wanted tougher action.

"I think we should have provided a far stronger statement and backed it up with action but at least there's the possibility now of really tough action being taken by the Commonwealth if the observers' report on the election makes it clear - as I think it must do - that there's been violence and intimidation that's affected the election."

He added: "This statement is not the statement I would have drafted. I think it's totally wrong to try and equate what's happening in respect of the opposition parties in Zimbabwe with what is, in effect, sponsored violence.

"There's no point in using diplomatic language about this. The statement that's appeared is in a sense the lowest common denominator and, of course, I wouldn't have drafted the statement in those terms."

The statement agreed at the summit said that Commonwealth heads of government "expressed their deep concern about incidents of violence and intimidation surrounding the election campaign, called on all parties to refrain from such violence and urged all concerned to work together to create an atmosphere in which there could be a free and fair election."

Mr Blair said it was significant, however, that the statement did authorise the group of three leaders to take action, including suspension from the Commonwealth.

Zimbabwe has argued that countries can only be suspended from the 54-nation body if their elected governments have been ousted in a military coup.

Mr Blair went on: "I think if there is a clear Commonwealth observers report, as seems likely, and if they recommend on that basis that the election cannot be said to have been a free and fair election, then I believe that the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa will agree that Zimbabwe should be suspended.

"They have made it clear that if the evidence is there, they will take the necessary action."

And Mr Blair warned: "If we end up with an observers report which is adverse and there is a failure to act, I think it will damage the Commonwealth significantly.

"If the Commonwealth doesn't act, then it would be a failure of its credibility - but I think it will."

The Prime Minister, speaking on the third day of the four-day summit, insisted: "The case for suspending Zimbabwe now is very plain."

He said the problem with such summits was that action could be taken only by unanimity.

However, the three-man group has been authorised to decide what action to take without referring the matter back to a further meeting.

Mr Blair added: "It's important to point out that it was only a very small minority of countries that were prepared to justify in any way what Mugabe is doing."

However, he said he was still optimistic about the eventual outcome.

"I think you will find that the Commonwealth does do the right thing in the end. But if it doesn't, then it would be a serious failure of its credibility."

The Prime Minister brushed aside an earlier attack on him by Zimbabwe's Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who accused him of being racist.

"Given what Mugabe is doing to his own people in Zimbabwe, it's hardly surprising if his information minister is putting a few bad words my way. I don't really care about that," said Mr Blair.

The Commonwealth leaders will now go into the final day of their summit, having dealt with virtually its only contentious issue, which at one stage was going to be included in the meeting's final communique.

That is now expected to be a low-key document dealing with generalised Commonwealth issues.

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