AU chairman says Mugabe invite matter of principle

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MIDRAND, South Africa, Nov 16 (Reuters) Africa's insistence that Robert Mugabe be invited to a summit in Europe is a matter of principle and not a sign of support for the Zimbabwean leader or his government, the chairman of the African Union said today.

The prospect that Mugabe, widely accused in the West of abusing human rights and suppressing political opposition, could attend a European Union-AU summit in Lisbon next month has threatened to derail the meeting.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he will boycott the summit, the first to be held since 2000, if the 83-year-old Mugabe is invited. The 53-member AU, however, has held firm in its demand that Mugabe be allowed to attend.

''It's a matter of principle,'' AU Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare told reporters at a conference outside Johannesburg. ''That position does not mean that we support what is happening in Zimbabwe. It is the principle.'' Konare, the former president of Mali, said he was confident that the controversy had largely been defused, adding that he did not think the political crisis in Zimbabwe would be an issue high up on the agenda in Lisbon.

The summit is intended to focus on areas requiring closer cooperation between Europe and Africa, notably trade, migration and the establishment of an energy partnership.

Mugabe, who sparked international outrage earlier this year when his police arrested and beat dozens of political opponents, became persona non grata in much of Europe after winning a 2002 election described as rigged by international observers.

The Zimbabwean leader and more than 100 other Zimbabwean officials are banned from travelling to EU nations under sanctions imposed that year.

Britain, which ruled Zimbabwe under its former name Rhodesia until independence in 1980, is the EU nation most publicly opposed to inviting Mugabe to Portugal. Under EU rules, any member can veto the invitation.

But Brown has found little support for his summit position among his European partners. Germany and Portugal, which holds the rotating six-month EU presidency, are among those who have said they don't want the impasse to block the summit.

The issue of whether to invite Mugabe, who has vowed to run for another term as president next year, is the main reason the EU and Africa have not held a summit since their first effort in Cairo seven years ago.

REUTERS PY VC2335

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