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Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe

LONDON, England -- Zimbabwe is to be suspended from the Commonwealth for 12 months.

The decision was made on behalf of the 54-nation group by the leaders of South Africa, Australia and Nigeria after studying the Commonwealth observer mission's report on Zimbabwe's recent presidential elections.

It came on the eve of a planned a three-day general strike called by Zimbabwe's main labour federation in protest against what it called post-election harassment of workers.

Announcing the decision in London, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Zimbabwe's membership would be reconsidered after one year. Zimbabwe will be barred from all the Commonwealth's councils effective immediately.

Howard hoped the international community would encourage reconciliation in Zimbabwe between the main parties and offer humanitarian aid to its people.

Mugabe's Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said the country had more pressing issues to deal with, like revitalising the economy, Associated Press reported.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says Zimbabwe's membership will be reconsidered after one year. CNN's Robin Oakley reports (March 19)

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The presidents of South Africa and Nigeria are looking into charges that Zimbabwe's presidential elections were neither free nor fair. CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports (March 19)

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The Commonwealth's three-member committee agreed with the "very strong views" and conclusions in the observers' report which accused President Robert Mugabe, in power for 22 years, of using state powers and institutions to steal victory.

Howard described the suspension as being at the "more severe end of the range of options available" to the Commonwealth.

"We look for change and progress in Zimbabwe. We know it will be difficult."

Zimbabwe faced problems with its economy, food, restoration of political stability, rule of law and conduct in future elections, he said.

CNN's European political editor Robin Oakley said the decision was crucial for Zimbabwe, southern Africa and the Commonwealth itself which was in danger of being seen as irrelevant if it did not act on the damning report written by its own observers.

Howard, South Africa's Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo were appointed to decide what, if any, action the Commonwealth should take against Zimbabwe at a summit staged before the Zimbabwe election.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon told CNN that reconciliation between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was "so important to the future of Zimbabwe."

The ballot in Zimbabwe saw Mugabe gain a sixth term amid allegations of violence and intimidation against the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

Generally Western governments have criticised the fairness of the election while African governments have been less willing to condemn Mugabe.

The U.S., Britain and the European Union condemned the elections as "unfair and not free."

Mbeki and Obasanjo held talks with Mugabe on Monday to try and seek a compromise. Among the proposals speculated on was a government of national unity. (Full story)

It is not clear yet what the result of the talks were, but both Mugabe and Tsvangirai, have cast doubt on the plan.

Tsvangirai said on Tuesday: "We arrived at the conclusion that the objective conditions do not exist for meaningful discussion because (Mugabe's party) ZANU-PF is embarking on mass retribution against our members in the rural areas."

Mugabe said his victory was a mandate to pursue his land reform programme. Howard said land was at the core of Zimbabwe's problems and "cannot by separated from other concerns."

The Harare meeting came on the same day that a white farmer was shot dead by suspected ruling party militants. Terry Ford was the first white farmer killed since Mugabe was re-elected and the 10th killed since militants began often-violent occupations of white-owned land two years ago. (Full story)

Police said on Tuesday they had arrested four men and seized firearms linked to the murder, Reuters reported.

Denmark, which is not a member of the Commonwealth, announced on Tuesday it was closing its Harare embassy and ending development aid to the country.

And the Swiss government is following the EU and U.S. in imposing travel and financial sanctions on Zimbabwe government representatives.


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