JOHANNESBURG - Europe turned up pressure on Zimbabwe's president to share power with the opposition, toughening sanctions yesterday against Robert Mugabe just as his ruling party was to begin talks with its chief rival mediated by South Africa.
Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai met face-to-face Monday for the first time in 10 years and agreed to formal talks about sharing power after three months of state-sponsored electoral violence. The negotiations were expected to start either late yesterday or today at an undisclosed location around the South African capital Johannesburg.
Analysts said growing international pressure coupled with Zimbabwe's economic meltdown left Mugabe little choice but to sign the agreement with the opposition. The central bank issued a $100 billion note this week in the face of the world's worst inflation - which officials estimate at 2.2 million percent annually but independent finance houses say is closer to 12.5 million percent.
"When you start to hit these kinds of figures, you know the wheels have come off in a big way," said Richard Cornwell, researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Zimbabwe's latest political crisis began in March with a presidential election where Tsvangirai garnered the most votes, but not enough to win outright.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the June 27 runoff against Mugabe, citing escalating state-sponsored violence against his supporters. His party says more than 120 of its activists have been killed by Mugabe's police, soldiers, and party militants since the March vote. Thousands have been injured and tens of thousands have had their homes torched or been forced to leave areas where opposition legislators were elected.
African election monitors said the June runoff was not free and fair and several African leaders broke ranks to declare they did not recognize him as president of Zimbabwe.
"It is impossible to accept the second round of elections in Zimbabwe, with children being tortured, with barbarous acts being committed, with violation of basic democratic rules," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France told reporters after the European Union decided to expand sanctions against Mugabe.
The EU agreed to expand its sanctions blacklist of people linked to Mugabe's government to 172 people, adding 37 individuals and four companies believed to financially support Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The list already had 131 people, including Mugabe and members of his Cabinet, under measures passed in 2002.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain said EU nations were expecting more proof that Mugabe was willing to sign on to a transitional government with the opposition. "It requires an end to the violence, it requires an end to the ban on humanitarian [nongovernmental organizations] around Zimbabwe. Those are the first steps toward a resolution of the Zimbabwean crisis," Miliband told reporters.
Beyond the political crisis, Zimbabwe's economy is in ruins. Mugabe's seizures of white-owned commercial farms have destroyed the former food-exporting nation. One-third of the population has fled the country, another third is dependent on food aid, and about 80 percent are unemployed. There are chronic shortages of fuel, medicine, and food amid daily cuts in power and water service.
Zimbabwe's myriad problems are spilling over its borders, with millions of economic and political refugees fleeing to neighbors.