JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s opposition vowed to resist any compromise that would leave it sidelined in a unity government with President Robert Mugabe’s party at new talks on Tuesday.
Negotiators from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a breakaway MDC faction were hoping to reach a breakthrough in talks with mediator Thabo Mbeki in South Africa to discuss a draft constitutional amendment.
The amendment would allow a new government to be formed under a September 15 power-sharing deal with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister, but the parties are still arguing over the wording and about who should control which ministries.
South Africa’s SAPA news agency said discussions had started at an undisclosed location. Officials from Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF and the MDC were not immediately available for comment.
Pressure is growing on the rival parties to strike a deal as a humanitarian crisis deepens and regional leaders worry about a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 300 people and sent hundreds streaming into South Africa to seek treatment.
But the MDC said it would resist any attempt to force it to accept a compromise and wants the talks to address its demands for control of key government posts.
“For us, it is better that we take time to reach an agreement than to have an agreement that will not work or last,” MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said. “For us, it is better to have a longer gestation period and a healthy baby than an inducement than ends in abortion.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe as “desperate” and urged the rival parties to reach a rapid deal on a new government.
A statement read by U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban was “alarmed that the humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is now desperate and will worsen in the coming months,” with nearly half the 12 million population needing food aid.
Many in the southern African country hope a deal will usher in a new government to end a crippling economic crisis that has seen official inflation soar to 231 million percent. The real level is thought to be even higher, with some estimating that prices of basic goods are doubling every 24 hours.
The MDC has refused to enter government, accusing ZANU-PF of trying to take the most powerful ministries and freeze it out, in violation of the power-sharing deal.
The agreement may unravel completely if Mugabe names a cabinet without MDC approval, jeopardizing what is seen as the best chance of reversing a decade of economic collapse.
The opposition also said on Tuesday the talks were being threatened by the Mugabe government’s failure to respect citizens’ rights under the terms of the power-sharing agreement.
The MDC said its lawyers had appealed to the attorney-general for the urgent release of 15 party activists it said were arrested in pre-dawn raids in a small farming town about a month ago.
The party said the state’s failure to produce the activists in court was a “patent violation” of the deal.
Food shortages and hyperinflation have led millions of Zimbabweans to flee their country. A new outbreak of anthrax in southwestern Zimbabwe has killed two people and 150 animals in the last two weeks, a senior government official said.
The United Nations said on Tuesday the death toll from the cholera outbreak had risen to 366 out of 8,887 known cases since August.
International aid agency Oxfam urged Zimbabwe’s government to declare a national health emergency over the cholera problem.
“Delay is not an option as this crisis could rapidly spread with the rainy season looming,” the group said in a statement.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other prominent world figures said on Monday Zimbabwe was close to a humanitarian disaster and urged leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a grouping of regional states, to put more pressure on Mugabe and the MDC to break the impasse.
Annan, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and human rights campaigner Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, part of a group called the Elders, were barred from entering Zimbabwe last weekend on a humanitarian visit. The government said the trip was unnecessary and denied them visas.