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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 December, 2003, 17:52 GMT
Blair standing firm on Zimbabwe
Tony Blair leaves Heathrow for Nigeria
Blair: Countries need to 'work for change in Zimbabwe'
Zimbabwe must remain suspended from the Commonwealth to send out a strong signal of disapproval, Tony Blair says.

Speaking on his way to the Commonwealth summit in Abuja, Nigeria, he called on countries in southern Africa to put pressure on Robert Mugabe's regime.

Mr Blair said those who accused Britain of colonialism were "defending the indefensible".

Australia has backed the UK in calling for sanctions to remain, but Canada is urging a compromise deal.

'Unholy alliance'

Canada says it will suggest a mechanism to ensure Zimbabwe could rejoin the Commonwealth ahead of the next summit in two years time.

Other states, led by Zambia, are pushing for the countries readmittance, while President Mugabe is blaming his exclusion on an "Anglo Saxon unholy alliance" of Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The key thing is to maintain the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, as that will send a strong signal of disapproval at what is happening in Zimbabwe
Tony Blair

But Mr Blair, who arrived in Abuja late on Thursday, rejected the charge of racism, arguing the UK wanted change for black people in Zimbabwe who make up the majority of Mugabe's victims, as well as the white farmers who are being driven from their lands.

"I certainly don't favour doing anything that diminishes the obligation to make change there because change is so obviously in the interests of the people," he said.

"This is nothing to do with old-fashioned colonialism. It is simply to do with regimes that don't treat their people properly."

While there were limits to what the Commonwealth could do, he said it was important the suspension remained in place.

Stand united

"The Commonwealth has got a limit to the power it can have, but it is far better that a signal is sent from the Commonwealth than it is not sent," he said.

"The important thing is to work for change in Zimbabwe for the black population as much as the white farmers.

"The black population are the main people who suffer."

He added: "The key thing is to maintain the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, as that will send a strong signal of disapproval at what is happening in Zimbabwe."

Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram urged Mr Blair to persuade Commonwealth leaders to "stand united in criticising the abuses of the Mugabe regime".

Alleged abuses

"Any failure to do this will be seen by the people of Zimbabwe as tacit support from within the Commonwealth for a brutal regime," he said.

"Any support for Mugabe from African leaders will send the message that African countries are not prepared to put their own shop in order.

"This will have serious political and economic consequences for the whole region."

On Wednesday, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa announced he would lead a campaign to readmit Zimbabwe, which was suspended in protest at alleged electoral abuses.

Critic

But outgoing Commonwealth chairman, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, urged African leaders to join in upholding the suspension.

Speculation is also growing that members will seek to block the re-election of New Zealander Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth's secretary general and a critic of Mugabe's regime.

But Mr Blair gave his backing for Mr McKinnon, stressing: "I can't be sure until I get there, but I hope very much he is confirmed. I think he will be."




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