EU-Africa talks host plays down UK boycott threat

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LISBON, Sep 20 (Reuters) EU President Portugal would find it hard to bar Robert Mugabe from an EU-Africa summit and will push ahead with the event despite British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's boycott threat, a source close to the presidency said.

Brown said in an article published today he would stay away from the summit, set for Lisbon in December, if Mugabe was present, accusing the veteran president of having left his people in an ''appalling and tragic situation''.

A Portuguese diplomatic source close to the EU presidency responded that Europe's relationship with Africa ''cannot remain hostage'' to the Zimbabwe issue and suggested the meeting could go ahead without Brown.

The summit would be the first between the EU and Africa in seven years. Plans for a follow-up conference have been on hold since 2003 because former colonial power Britain and several other EU states refused to invite Mugabe, and the Africans refused to attend without him.

Portugal, which sees the meeting as a flagship event of its six-month presidency and a chance to forge deeper ties between the 27-member bloc and Africa, vowed to push ahead with preparations and insisted Brown's threat was ''not new''.

''It will be very hard not to invite Mugabe. Some African leaders in the African Union might not be willing to come if he is not invited,'' the Portuguese source said.

''He is the oldest leader in the AU (African Union) and is seen by many as a freedom fighter,'' he said, noting Mugabe had spent 10 years in jail for opposing white minority rule.

''It is likely that if Mugabe comes, Brown will not be in a political position to attend the summit. The question is whether Britain will be represented at a lower level,'' the source said.

INVITATIONS ''NOT DECIDED'' Officially, a spokesman for Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado said: ''We continue to work on the EU-Africa summit and we will do everything to make it a success.'' Brown's official spokesman suggested that if a Zimbabwean government representative other than Mugabe attended, the British prime minister might attend. ''That would clearly be a different circumstance,'' Brown's spokesman told reporters.

Critics say Mugabe has presided over the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, now marked by the world's highest inflation rate of about 6,600 percent and joblessness of about 80 percent.

Mugabe, who blames Western powers and especially former colonial power Britain for his country's woes, is subject to an EU travel ban which could however be suspended for the summit.

African Union president Ghana said last week all African heads of state, including Mugabe, would attend the summit.

The Commonwealth, the body that groups Britain and 52 mostly British ex-colonies, also urged the EU to invite Mugabe, arguing that it would jeopardise EU-ties not to. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 after being suspended the previous year.

Brown wrote in today's edition of the Independent newspaper that Mugabe's presence risked ''diverting attention from the important issues that need to be resolved. In those circumstances, my attendance would not be appropriate''.

Another EU presidency source said the question of invitations had still not been decided but the Portuguese presidency wanted as strong a turnout as possible.

''We want everyone to be there. ... Of course we'd like the British prime minister to attend.'' EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel was due to meet British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in London on Thursday and a Michel spokesman stressed the EU wanted the summit to go ahead.

''This is not an EU-Zimbabwe summit. It's an EU-African summit with a lot of strategic issues at stake,'' he said, citing climate change, security, economic governance and migration.

REUTERS SKB HT1648

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