UN sets stage for showdown next week over Zimbabwe sanctions

Western powers triggered intense discussions Thursday over Zimbabwe's future, as UN Security Council members were handed the draft text of a US plan for new sanctions on President Robert Mugabe's regime. The action sets the stage for a potentially caustic showdown next week; a council meeting to discuss what to do has been scheduled for Tuesday. Under the draft UN sanctions, nations would be required to freeze the financial assets of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and 11 of his officials, and to restrict their travel to within Zimbabwe's borders. It also would call on Mugabe's government to immediately begin negotiating to form a unity government with the opposition and to lift restrictions on humanitarian aid. Zimbabwe's top opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has already ruled out talks under current conditions. Several council members, including the US and Britain, spoke in favor of sanctions during private consultations Thursday morning. Other council members said they could not comment before their capitals had a chance to study the text. US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who introduced the draft, emphasized the council already has approved two statements concluding that Mugabe's re-election should not have been held and was illegitimate. The council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had each urged Mugabe to postpone the election. "President Mugabe and his people ignored both the Security Council decision and the calls by the international community and held a flawed election," Khalilzad told reporters. "Therefore, there is a crisis of legitimacy that continues." Khalilzad it was not just Zimbabweans who were affected, but the council's credibility also. "We want to respond to the situation," he said, "and respond in a way that encourages a move towards resolving the legitimacy crisis without negatively impacting the people of Zimbabwe who are suffering a great deal at the hands of the regime." Council members also were meeting with experts on the Zimbabwean situation Thursday afternoon. Next Tuesday, the 15-nation council intends to take up the sanctions proposal and to hear briefings from the deputy secretary-general, who attended this week's African summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and from Ban's envoy to Zimbabwe. Ban's spokeswoman said he would have no comment on the proposed sanctions. "It is a matter for the Security Council at this point," Michele Montas said. The US, Britain and France, three of the council's five veto-wielding members, so far have managed to push through nonbinding resolutions condemning the election violence and intimidation against Zimbabwe's political opposition. South Africa and the other two members with veto power, China and Russia, had opposed taking further action, but agreed to the statement nonetheless. Washington also is considering tougher unilateral sanctions by expanding the list of about 130 officials now banned from visiting the US and hit with financial penalties. The European Union and Australia also have imposed their own limited sanctions on Zimbabwe's government, and the EU likewise is studying whether to add to travel bans and an asset freeze already in place on Mugabe, his Cabinet ministers and top ruling party officials. The United States and Europe say Tsvangirai, who won the first round of voting on March 29 but not by enough of a margin to avoid the second runoff, should be Zimbabwe's next leader. Mugabe has shown little sign of yielding power after 28 years as president. Tsvangirai withdrew just ahead of the June 27 election, saying state-sponsored violence had made it too unsafe for him and his supporters to continue and a fair election impossible. Mugabe went ahead with the one-candidate vote despite international condemnation and declared himself the overwhelming winner Sunday. He immediately held an inauguration ceremony to begin his sixth term as president. Though they are opposed to putting sanctions on Zimbabwe, Russia and China could choose to abstain from council voting on a UN sanctions resolution, which would allow it to pass. China and South Africa, which led a fight to water down the two council statements on Zimbabwe, are Zimbabwe's biggest trading partners. South Africa's UN Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said he "agreed that there should be a briefing" Tuesday in the council on Zimbabwe, but wouldn't comment on the US draft resolution. "We're not saying anything, we're still going to study it. But we are AU people," he said. He was referring to opposition among some members of the AU to trying to force change within Zimbabwe. Some leaders at the AU summit had harsh words for Mugabe, hoping to persuade the 84-year-old leader to loosen his grip and share power with Tsvangirai. But on Tuesday, the AU summit also reconfirmed South African President Thabo Mbeki as Africa's mediator, even though Tsvangirai has repeatedly rejected him and accused him of pro-Mugabe bias. Mbeki has been criticized by Western nations and some of his African peers for refusing to publicly condemn Mugabe.