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Blair hails sanction on Zimbabwe

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ABOARD BRITISH PRIME MINISTER'S PLANE, (Reuters) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has welcomed the agreement by Commonwealth leaders to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe for violating the group's democratic values.

"It was the right outcome even though it was difficult getting there," Blair told reporters aboard his plane on Sunday.

"It was important for the Commonwealth to send a strong signal by maintaining the suspension.

"Now it is up to the Zimbabwe government to make the changes required to comply with the principles (of democracy) set out in the (1991 Commonwealth) Harare Declaration."

Blair, who lobbied harder that any other leader at the summit to extend the suspension, said there was "no real serious dispute" at the Commonwealth although he admitted "it was tough" and that there had been "three days of very heavy negotiations."

The outcome would send "a clear message to people in Zimbabwe that the Commonwealth is on the side of democracy and human rights," he said.

Earlier a spokesman for the 54-nation club of mainly former British colonies meeting in the Nigerian capital Abuja confirmed leaders had agreed to continue Harare's suspension despite strong opposition from a group of African countries.

Zimbabwe, a former British colony, was suspended from the Commonwealth early last year on the grounds that President Robert Mugabe had rigged his re-election and persecuted his opponents.

Asked about opposition to the suspension from South Africa and others, Blair said: "Some of the countries in the region have a different point of view but I pay tribute to them that in the end they decided they didn't want to disturb the consensus."

Asked if relations with the South African president had soured over Zimbabwe, Blair said ties remained "very strong."

A defiant Mugabe, who accuses Blair of being a racist who along with other white nations in the Commonwealth has hijacked the group under "Colonial" pretensions, had threatened to leave.

The summit ends on Monday but Blair is flying home to Britain early to attend a private family funeral and join in celebrations of England's World Cup rugby victory.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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