JOHANNESBURG, Sep 18 (Reuters) Western powers should back South African mediation as the only real chance of stopping Zimbabwe's collapse, an influential think-tank said today.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said Western sanctions had failed and attacks on President Robert Mugabe by London and Washington were counter-productive.
Mediation by South African President Thabo Mbeki ''offers the only realistic chance to escape a crisis that increasingly threatens to destabilise the region,'' the ICG said in a report.
''It is critical that all international actors close ranks behind the Mbeki mediation.'' A grouping of southern African nations has mandated Mbeki to secure a deal on constitutional reform between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change ahead of March 2008 presidential and parliamentary polls.
The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) says Mbeki has made progress. But Western diplomats disagree.
The ICG said SADC must resolve internal differences about how hard to press Mugabe into retirement.
Mugabe, 83 and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, faces few political challenges. His opponents are weak and international efforts to undermine him have had little impact.
''Western sanctions mainly targeting just over 200 members of the leadership with travel bans and asset freezes have proven largely symbolic,'' said the ICG.
''And general condemnations from the UK and US if anything (are) counter-productive because they help Mugabe claim he is the victim of neo-colonial ambitions.'' REGIONAL CONCERNS The ICG said the opportunity should be seized to influence Mugabe as he comes under mounting economic pressure.
''Through repression and patronage, Mugabe can still control politics but not the deteriorating economy -- including runaway inflation -- which is hurting the region more than ever before,'' the report said.
''Unease about the crisis's impact is mounting across southern Africa and may override constraints that previously prevented determined action.'' Zimbabwe, once one of Africa's most prosperous countries, suffers the world's highest inflation rate, officially put at 6,592 per cent, chronic food and fuel shortages and 80 per cent unemployment.
Mugabe denies destroying the economy with policies like seizing white-owned farms for landless blacks, widely blamed for crippling the agriculture sector. He says the West has sabotaged the Zimbabwe economy in retaliation for farm seizures.
''Six months before scheduled elections, Zimbabwe is closer than ever to complete collapse,'' said the ICG.
Mugabe, who also denies charges of widespread human rights abuses, has been manoeuvring to tighten his grip on power.
His government has introduced a bill to give blacks majority ownership of foreign firms. Parliament, dominated by his ruling ZANU-PF, is due to debate a constitutional bill that would allow Mugabe to pick a successor if he chose to retire.
''Some SADC leaders remain Mugabe supporters, and there is a risk the organisation will accept cosmetic changes that further entrench the status quo,'' the report said.
REUTERS AKB AS1832