Zimbabwe vote can't be free or fair: Rice

UNITED NATIONS Thu Jun 19, 2008 3:10pm EDT

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Actions by Zimbabwe's government have ensured that presidential run-off elections next week will not be free and fair, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday.

Rice was speaking at a U.N. round-table meeting on Zimbabwe, where the opposition charges that President Robert Mugabe's supporters have waged a campaign of intimidation ahead of the vote. Mugabe rejects the allegation.

"By its actions, the Mugabe regime has given up any pretense that the June 27 elections will be allowed to proceed in a free and fair manner," Rice said in comments that appeared to be her harshest condemnation of Mugabe to date.

She added that it was time for "broader, stronger international action" on Zimbabwe, although she offered no suggestions of what steps should be taken.

Rice accused Mugabe of taking a country that was once considered the jewel of Africa and "turning it into a failed state that threatens not only the lives of Zimbabweans but the security and stability of all southern Africa."

"The orchestrated campaign of violence and harassment by the regime is designed to prevent Zimbabwe's opposition from conducting its peaceful election campaign," she said.

Mugabe had made this point clear when he told supporters that areas where Zimbabweans voted for the opposition in the first round of elections should be "cleansed," Rice said.

She also accused Mugabe of using food as a weapon by denying opposition supporters and their children access to badly needed food aid.

Summarizing comments by other participants during the mostly closed-door meeting, Rice said: "The mood in the room was one of extraordinary concern."

Rice urged the Southern African Development Community, African Union and any other countries or organizations allowed into Zimbabwe to observe the elections to send "as many observers as possible as early as possible and to insist that they be given full freedom to operate."

SOUTH AFRICAN MINISTER DIDN'T ATTEND

As expected, the informal meeting of council members, African states and activist groups did not produce a joint statement on Zimbabwe. Rice was asked afterward if she expected the U.N. Security Council to take any action on Zimbabwe when it formally discusses the issue next week.

She said the details of the council meeting, which U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad will chair as this month's Security Council president, were still being worked out. Diplomats say the council is unlikely to take any action next week due to opposition from South Africa, Russia and China.

The delegation from South Africa, which has been opposed to any council discussion of Zimbabwe, arrived halfway through Rice's opening statement.

Instead of sending Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who was in the U.N. building attending a meeting on sexual violence against women, Pretoria sent its Deputy U.N. Ambassador Baso Sangqu to the meeting with Rice.

French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade attended the meeting on Zimbabwe, as did Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, Britain's Attorney General Patricia Scotland and other senior government officials.

Several diplomats said Rice was disappointed by South Africa's decision not to send Zuma to the Zimbabwe meeting.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, Editing by Vicki Allen)