Better talk to Mugabe than boycott summit - Merkel

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LISBON, Oct 19 (Reuters) Critics of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe should speak out to his face, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today, opposing a British threat to boycott an EU-Africa summit in Lisbon if Mugabe attends.

All EU leaders say they want the December summit, the first with Africa for seven years, to take place, but they are divided on how to deal with Mugabe. Other African leaders demand he be invited, despite the objections of some in the EU.

EU nations, promoting human rights and good governance in Africa as a basis for trade and investment, are under pressure from China's ''resource diplomacy'', which says Africans need material prosperity more urgently than rights and freedom.

''Criticism of Mr Mugabe can be levelled at him when he is there,'' Merkel told reporters at the end of an EU summit in Lisbon when asked about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's threat to stay away if Mugabe comes.

''I am going regardless,'' Merkel said. ''I think we should have this summit ... it wouldn't be responsible if everyone was interested in Africa but not us.'' There has been no EU-Africa summit for years because former colonial power Britain and other EU states refused to attend if Mugabe did, and African leaders would not go if he was barred.

Lisbon says it will invite all leaders, including Mugabe.

Portuguese diplomats say the invitations will go out on Oct. 30.

The leaders of Sweden and Finland told Reuters yesterday that Mugabe should be excluded from the summit, but left open whether they would join Britain in boycotting the gathering.

''GREAT OPPORTUNITY'' Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he had not decided whether to attend the summit if Mugabe came, but added that serious discussion of Zimbabwe and human rights was a precondition for his attendance.

All three countries, which pride themselves on active human rights advocacy around the world, said the summit was crucial and that they wanted it to take place.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero said on Friday that the summit was crucial for his country.

''This summit is a great opportunity to deepen and go forward so that in the whole EU ... we look at the issue of migration with Africa as an essential, crucial issue for our well-being,'' he told a news conference in Lisbon.

Zapatero said he wanted the summit to facilitate the repatriation of illegal African migrants to their homes.

Critics accuse Mugabe, 83, of rigging elections, human rights abuses and presiding over the collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, now marked by the world's highest inflation rate of about 8,000 per cent and joblessness of about 80 per cent.

Mugabe blames Western powers for the economic crisis and accuses them, and former colonial ruler Britain in particular, of plotting with the opposition to oust him. African leaders see him as an elderly hero of the anti-colonial struggle.

Mugabe is subject to an EU travel ban but it can be suspended for the Lisbon summit.

Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra told reporters last week that his country was also considering boycotting the meeting if Mugabe attends it.

The 27-member EU is Africa's largest trading partner with trade totalling more than 200 billion euros (285 billion dollars) last year. But China leapt into third place with trade worth 43 billion euros and has stepped up its aid and investments.

REUTERS RSA KN2315

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