EU should invite Mugabe to summit - Commonwealth

BRUSSELS, Sept 12 (Reuters) - The EU should invite Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to a planned summit with Africa because barring him would jeopardise relations between Africa and Europe, the Commonwealth's secretary general said.

The EU and Africa want to hold their first summit in seven years early December in Portugal. But they first need to overcome the problem of whether to invite Mugabe, whom the West and rights groups accuse of human rights violations.

Plans for an EU-Africa summit have been on hold for years because Britain and other EU countries have refused to attend if Mugabe is there, while African countries have refused to come if he is barred.

Some EU officials have suggested Zimbabwe could be represented at a lower level than Mugabe, perhaps by the country's foreign minister.

"It's useful to have him (Mugabe) there for the dialogue to go on," Commonwealth chief Don McKinnon told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday during a two-day visit to Brussels. "Africa's relation with the EU is very important."

"If the dialogue gets cancelled because Africa refused to get on with the request (to veto him), it would be a bigger problem."

Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 after being suspended the previous year. The body groups Britain and 52 mostly former British colonies, 18 of which are African nations.

Portugal, the current EU president, is keen to improve relations between the bloc and Africa and has said it will not discriminate among African states.

But diplomats say some EU leaders such as Britain's Gordon Brown are not keen to share a forum with Mugabe.

"The EU makes it very difficult for Africans," McKinnon said, adding that he had been in African countries where "Mugabe is still very much a hero".

An aide to McKinnon said the Commonwealth, which supports projects on democracy and development, could eventually be willing to re-engage with Zimbabwe, but only under certain conditions:

"A democratic Zimbabwe would need to make an overture to come back and we would make the overture to receive it," John Philips said.

Mugabe blames Western sanctions for galloping hyper-inflation, food shortages and a spiralling economic crisis. Critics say the 83-year-old leader has destroyed the economy with his policy of taking over white-owned farms.