HARARE Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition MDC began negotiations on Tuesday in neighboring South Africa on a power-sharing deal that could end the country's political crisis, diplomatic sources said.
President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a deal on Monday that committed the ruling ZANU-PF and two factions of the MDC to two weeks of negotiations with South African mediators.
A diplomatic source close to the talks said negotiations began on Tuesday at an undisclosed venue in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. The source said neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai would attend the opening round.
An MDC official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "There was convergence among all the parties that the dialogue had to start as soon as the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) was done, hence the resumption of that process today."
The government and the opposition had been deadlocked over talks since Mugabe was re-elected unopposed on June 27 in a run-off poll boycotted by Tsvangirai because of violence against his supporters. Mugabe blames the opposition for the bloodshed.
The main goal of the Pretoria talks will be the creation of a government of national unity, though the two sides differ on who should lead it and how long it should stay in power.
But analysts said the two week deadline may be difficult to keep to.
"Unfortunately, I am very skeptical. I think it is ambitious to expect a solution in two weeks. Yesterday's event is a good first step, but the two parties are so polarized it will take nothing short of a miracle to achieve that," said John Makumbe, political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
Pressure on the two sides to share power came from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, concerned by the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe that has flooded neighboring states with millions of refugees.
The European Union on Tuesday increased pressure on Mugabe, saying it had agreed additional sanctions on Zimbabwe.
An EU official said at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels that 37 people and four companies would be added to the EU's Zimbabwe sanctions list.
The breakthrough between Zimbabwe's rivals appeared to follow South African President Thabo Mbeki's agreement late last week to expand the mediation process to include the African Union, the United Nations and other SADC officials.
Mbeki has been mediating in the crisis for more than a year and had been increasingly criticized, especially by the MDC, which accused him of taking too soft a line with Mugabe.
South Africa's ruling ANC on Tuesday welcomed the agreement.
"The agreement is one of the most promising developments towards the resolution of the situation in Zimbabwe in the recent past. The ANC urges both parties to build on the foundation established by this agreement, and to earnestly pursue a political arrangement that puts the needs and wishes of the Zimbabwean people first," the party said in a statement.
In Harare, many Zimbabweans cautiously welcomed the agreement and a handshake between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, at their first meeting in a decade.
Newspaper vendors enjoyed brisk business as people thronged newsstands to buy the only daily newspaper available, the government-controlled Herald which had a picture of Mugabe shaking hands with Tsvangirai on its front page.
"People have been lining up to buy the paper, or at least look at the picture. Many cannot believe that the old man and Tsvangirai actually sat together, let alone held hands," said Tapera Guyo, a newspaper vendor.
Tsvangirai had previously refused to enter formal talks unless government militias stopped violence he says has killed 120 of his supporters. He also wanted Mugabe to recognize his (Tsvangirai's) victory in the first round of the presidential poll on March 29.
The negotiations are expected to be tense and possibly acrimonious. The MDC has accused Mugabe and ZANU-PF of violating human rights and rigging elections.
Tsvangirai has been arrested at least half a dozen times by security forces in the past two years, and he was beaten along with dozens of supporters in an aborted anti-government protest last year.
"This is just the first step on a journey whose duration and success is dependent on the sincerity and good faith of all parties involved," Tsvangirai said in a statement on Tuesday.
Mugabe, 84, has dismissed the MDC as a puppet of the West and vowed never to let it take power. The president, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has also insisted that the opposition accept his unopposed victory last month.
Zimbabwe's economic collapse under Mugabe's rule has plunged the once prosperous country into inflation of at least 2 million percent, crippling food and fuel shortages and 80 percent unemployment.