Czechs consider boycott of EU-Africa summit

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BRUSSELS, Oct 17 (Reuters) The Czech Republic is considering joining Britain's Gordon Brown in boycotting an EU-Africa summit if Zimbabwe's controversial leader Robert Mugabe shows up, a deputy prime minister said.

EU president Portugal is planning to host the first summit of EU and African leaders in seven years in December but Brown has said neither he nor any senior member of the British government will attend alongside Mugabe. He had been alone so far in announcing a boycott.

''Boycott the summit? It's an option,'' Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra told reporters. ''We have not made a decision yet but it's an option to downgrade our participation,'' he said in embargoed comments during a trip to Brussels last week.

The EU and Africa have failed to organise a summit for years because Britain and other EU states refused to attend if Mugabe did, and African leaders would not attend if he was barred.

Critics accuse Mugabe 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 6,600 per cent and joblessness of about 80 per cent.

But, pressed by increasing competition from China in the resource-rich continent, the EU seems determined this time for the summit to take place.

The 27-nation bloc is Africa's largest trading partner with trade totalling more than 200 billion euros (283 billion dollars) last year. But China leapt into third place in 2006 with 43 billion euros and has stepped up investments.

Portugal has said it will invite all leaders, including Mugabe.

It has yet to send the invitations.

Officials said EU states backed Portugal and want the summit to take place, though the Czech Republic, some Nordic countries and the Netherlands take a hard line on Mugabe's human rights records, along with Britain.

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 independence hero.

Mugabe is subject to an EU travel ban but the ban can be suspended to allow him to attend the Dec 8-9 summit Lisbon.

Reuters RN DB1234

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