Mugabe and Tsvangirai shake hands

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a blueprint for talks on forming a power sharing government, in a bid to end the violent political crisis that began with the March 29 presidential election.


Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday signed a deal laying down the framework for formal talks on forming a power sharing government to end a deep political crisis. It was the first meeting in 10 years between the two rivals, who are widely believed to detest each other. They sat at a conference table separated by South African President Thabo Mbeki who mediated the deal.


The preliminary agreement was signed in Harare's Rainbow Towers Hotel after weeks of deadlock since Mugabe was re-elected on June 27 in a widely condemned poll boycotted by Tsvangirai because of violence against his supporters.


Mbeki said the agreement committed both sides to an intense process to try to complete substantive negotiations as quickly as possible. "All parties recognise the urgency," he said.


A subdued Mugabe said after the signing that the agreement was "to chart a new way of political interaction," while Tsvangirai called the ceremony "a very historic occasion."


Officials from both sides said the framework agreement sets a two-week deadline for the government and two factions of the opposition MDC to discuss key issues including a unity government and how to hold new elections.


A government of national unity has been pushed as a solution to the crisis by the African Union and the regional body SADC (Southern African Development Community), both deeply concerned by Zimbabwe's political violence and an economic crisis that has flooded neighbouring states with millions of refugees. Tsvangirai's MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and Mugabe's ZANU-PF are also committed under the agreement to ease political tension within the two-week deadline, officials said.


Mugabe and Tsvangirai have been under heavy world and African pressure to enter negotiations, which are expected to be extremely tough. They have both demanded to be recognised as Zimbabwe's rightful president.


Mugabe called for an end to Western sanctions against him and his ruling circle and said there was no need for intervention from Europe in Zimbabwe. He has frequently called Tsvangirai a puppet of former colonial ruler Britain.


Zimbabwe's economic collapse under Mugabe's 28-year rule has plunged the once prosperous country into inflation of at least 2 million percent as well as crippling food and fuel shortages.


Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition faction, had previously refused to sign even a framework deal unless government militias stop violence he says has killed 120 of his supporters. He also demanded that Mugabe recognise his victory in the first round of the presidential poll on March 29.


The MDC leader pulled out of the run-off because of the heavy violence between the two rounds.


Mugabe, 84, blames the opposition for the bloodshed.


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