Mugabe mellows, fails to raise sanctions issue with EU

"We didn’t discuss that. This was not a negotiation time," she said following the meeting between Mugabe and a high-level European Union delegation.

The meeting, aimed at easing diplomatic tensions, focused on the troubled implementation of a fragile unity deal between Mugabe and former political rival Morgan Tsvangirai who joined an inclusive government in February.

The EU and the United States imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle following a disputed presidential poll in 2002, which Western nations as well as independent local poll monitors described as flawed.

In a departure from his usually defiant tone towards Western powers, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe extended a warm welcome Saturday to the first senior European Union delegation to visit the country in seven years.

‘We welcome you with open arms. We hope our talks will be fruitful with a positive outcome,’ Mugabe said before entering talks with EU commissioner for development and humanitarian aid Karel de Gucht, Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson and a representative from Spain, which takes over the EU presidency next year from Sweden.

The EU officials were arriving from South Africa, where they attended an EU-South Africa summit on Friday near Cape Town.

In Cape Town, de Gucht had defended the EU’s targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe in the face of calls from Zimbabwe’s southern African neighbours for the sanctions to be lifted.

In 2002, the EU slapped travel bans and asset freezes on Mugabe and scores of members of his inner circle. De Gucht insisted the general population was not adversely affected.

The EU and the US have said they will not remove the restrictive measures until seeing signs of greater reform in Zimbabwe.

A seven-month coalition headed by Mugabe and former opposition leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has managed to stabilize the economy but Mugabe’s opponents, including members of parliament from Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), continued to be harassed.

On the eve of the EU visit, Mugabe had been in typically defiant form, referring to British and Americans as ‘bloody whites’ who wanted to ‘poke their nose into our own affairs’ and refusing to halt controversial white farm seizures.

On Sunday, the EU troika will meet Tsvangirai in the second city of Bulawayo.  

After the talks, in Harare, he again called for international sanctions imposed since disputed presidential election in 2002 to be lifted.

The EU team also praised the meeting but indicated it was not appropriate yet for sanctions to end and complained about the slow pace of reforms.

The EU team is also due to meet PM Morgan Tsvangirai on its visit.

Before going into the talks with the EU team, Mr Mugabe said: "We welcome you with open arms. We hope our talks will be fruitful with a positive outcome."

When he reappeared after they ended, he told the BBC the talks had gone well.

But Mr Mugabe also said he bore no sense of responsibility for anything that had gone wrong in Zimbabwe – blaming Western governments and international sanctions, which he said should be lifted soon.

Mr Mugabe, 85, added that he had no plans to step down, saying he was "still young".

The EU team, led by Development Commissioner Karel De Gucht, expressed satisfaction with the talks.

But the BBC’s Andrew Harding, in Harare, says the delegation stressed these were not negotiations but discussions.

Our correspondent says the EU team pointed out the problems with the current situation, complaining to the president about the slow pace of political reform and about human rights violations and the rule of law.

The team, which has described the visit as an attempt to reopen political dialogue with Zimbabwe, said it was not appropriate to lift sanctions at the moment or for major aid to start.

Mr de Gucht said he hoped the president realised the need for "more understanding between the three principals – himself, the prime minister and the vice-prime minister".

Mr Mugabe said he had honoured the power-sharing deal signed a year ago.

Our correspondent says the EU visit is regarded as an exploratory one and no breakthroughs or major announcements had been expected.

He says that one year on from the announcement of power-sharing, there remain serious doubts about human rights, the stalling of political reform and the good faith of President Mugabe and his supporters.

In a speech a day before meeting the delegation, Mr Mugabe had lashed out at the Western sanctions, accusing whites of wanting to "poke their nose into own our own affairs".

"We have stood firm and we have refused to let go. Zimbabwe – sanctions or no sanctions, Zimbabwe remains ours," he told a meeting of his Zanu-PF youth wing in Harare.

Last week, African leaders had called for sanctions against the country to be lifted but Karel De Gucht said the measures had "no impact on the common population".

Sweden’s Development Minister Gunilla Carlsson and Mr De Gucht will be in the country until Sunday.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said last week that the EU was not considering lifting sanctions.

Long-time opposition leader Mr Tsvangirai wants a removal of sanctions to be conditional on how well the power-sharing deal signed a year ago has been implemented.

But last week the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) rejected that proposal.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who has criticised Mr Mugabe in the past and was expected to side with Mr Tsvangirai, said there should be no conditions placed on the removal of sanctions.