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Zimbabwe opposition declares deadlock in talks

The Zimbabwe opposition declared power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe deadlocked Thursday, but added it hoped the South African mediator could make progress.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Zimbabwe opposition declared power-sharing talks with President Robert Mugabe deadlocked Thursday, but added it hoped the South African mediator could make progress.

Main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai walked out after hours of talks Thursday, directing reporters' questions to his spokesman, Nelson Chamisa.

"We have reached a deadlock on all issues," Chamisa said, saying at least 10 Cabinet posts remained in dispute. He said they included the powerful ministries in charge of finance, police and the army — Mugabe is accused of using the latter two institutions to crush dissent.

Chamisa also said the factions could not agree on how to allot some governorships.

The mediator, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, remained in closed-door talks with Mugabe and a minor opposition leader. Chamisa said his faction hoped Mbeki could make headway.

Rudderless as economy collapses
The opposition has repeatedly accused Mugabe of trying to hold onto to too many key posts in the 31-member Cabinet agreed to in a Sept. 15 power-sharing deal. Under the deal, Mugabe's party was to have 15 Cabinet posts, Tsvangirai's 13 and the minor opposition faction led by Arthur Mutumbara three.

Without a political agreement, Zimbabwe has been rudderless as its economy collapses, and there were growing signs of impatience among ordinary Zimbabweans. Protesters gathered in the southern city of Bulawayo and outside the Harare hotel where negotiators met Thursday, calling on the politicians to put their difference aside and begin addressing such issues as inflation, which is 231 million percent; shortages of food, medicine and most other basic goods; and growing hunger.

Politicians and generals who have long depended on Mugabe's patronage are believed to be balking at losing their jobs. Tsvangirai, too, is under pressure. The international community is unlikely to unlock much-needed aid and investment if Tsvangirai is seen as giving up too much, and his supporters at home already are worried he erred fatally by allowing Mugabe to retain any power.

Earlier Thursday, The Herald, a state-run newspaper quoted an unidentified official from Mugabe's ruling party as saying compromises could be made in a Cabinet lineup Mugabe unilaterally announced last week. Mugabe had claimed the most powerful Cabinet posts for his own party, including the police ministry.

Protesters gather outside meeting
The optimism raised by The Herald was dampened by later state broadcaster reports indicating Mugabe was only willing to share key posts, possibly by creating a system in which the same post would be rotated among politicians from the three parties.

A negotiator for a small opposition faction said during a break in the talks that negotiators had reached a compromise on the finance and police ministries. He offered no details but said the deal could be completed Thursday. The talks continued into the evening without new announcements.

More than 40 women protesters gathered outside the hotel where the leaders were meeting and vowed not to let them leave until they reached agreement.

"No deal. No exit," read one placard. Another read: "Zimbabwe is hungry. We want a Cabinet today."

In Bulawayo, organizers of a demonstration by a women's group said police had arrested two of its leaders and dispersed the other protesters by beating them with sticks.

The national police spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the incident in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo.

Accusations of empty promises
The demonstrators were carrying a statement from Women of Zimbabwe Arise, accusing politicians of offering empty promises in their Sept. 15 agreement.

"How many more Zimbabweans must die before you act?" the statement said. "This is a national disaster and we demand food for all Zimbabweans now."

The U.N. estimates 45 percent of Zimbabwe's population, or 5.1 million people, will need food help by early 2009.

The women's group said that as about 200 of its members sat outside local government offices waiting for officials to come and hear their demands, riot police arrived and arrested leaders Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu and dispersed the other protesters by beating them. The women's group said at least one protester required medical attention.

Police regularly crack down on protests by groups critical of the government. Williams and Mahlangu were jailed for five weeks this year after being arrested during a peaceful protest in the capital.