Southern African nations back Mugabe at EU summit

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MAPUTO, Sep 24 (Reuters) Southern African nations today lined up behind Robert Mugabe in a row over whether the Zimbabwean president would be invited to an EU-Africa summit in December, saying they would boycott the event if he was banned.

The meeting in Lisbon would be the first in seven years.

Plans for an EU-Africa summit in 2003 were put on hold after Britain and other EU states refused to attend if Mugabe did.

They accuse him of rights abuses and rigging elections.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last week it would be inappropriate for him to attend if Mugabe was present because the Zimbabwean leader would divert attention from important aspects of the agenda.

But leaders of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have warned the summit could be scuttled if the Zimbabwean leader, who is barred from travelling to parts of Western Europe as a result of targeted sanctions, was not invited.

In an interview with Reuters, Mozambican Foreign Affairs Minister Alcide Abreu said her government agreed with the SADC position that Mugabe must be invited to take part.

''We support African strategies,'' Abreu said in a telephone interview in the Mozambican capital Maputo. ''We support the position taken by the leadership of these bodies (SADC and AU).'' The 14-nation SADC grouping is trying to end a political and economic crisis that has prompted millions of Zimbabweans to flee the once prosperous former British colony.

It has asked South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition.

''Attempting to isolate His Excellency President Robert Mugabe would be contrary to the letter and spirit of that initiative and, thus, the SADC position is that of non-participation if one of the region's leaders, namely President Robert Mugabe, is not invited,'' SADC spokeswoman Leefa Martin said on Monday in a statement emailed to Reuters.

Zimbabwe is struggling with inflation of 6,600 percent -- the world's highest -- unemployment of 80 percent and chronic food shortages. There are growing fears of a famine later this year.

Britain and other Western nations accuse Mugabe, in power since independence in 1980, of wrecking the economy through mismanagement.

Mugabe blames the problems on sabotage by Britain and others upset over his seizure of thousands of white-commercial farms for redistribution to landless blacks. The policy has coincided with a sharp drop in Zimbabwe's agricultural output.

REUTERS JK HS1924

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