HARARE, Zimbabwe – Three months after the voting and violence began, Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe and his bitter opposition rival agreed Monday to hold talks immediately about sharing power to end the country's political crisis.
But the rivals' first joint appearance in a decade did not bring relief to Zimbabweans grappling with the world's worst inflation. They lined up outside banks for Monday's release of a new Zimbabwe $100 billion note issued by the central bank — an instant hit with collectors on eBay.
Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed the breakthrough deal agreeing in cautious language that they have an obligation to establish a framework of "working together in an inclusive government."
It commits them to creating a "genuine, viable, permanent and sustainable solution" within two weeks and calls on parties to "eliminate all forms of political violence."
The deal, following three months of state-sponsored electoral violence, was seen as a victory for the opposition and was similar in concept to the pact worked out between rivals to end ethnic and political violence in Kenya that killed more than 1,000 people earlier this year.
Tsvangirai called it "the first tentative step toward searching for a solution," adding that "not finding a solution is not an option."
Mugabe stressed they must "chart a new way" and act without influence from Europe or the United States — a dig at Tsvangirai, whom he calls a Western puppet.
An official from Tsvangirai's party said the talks are to begin Thursday in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, with representatives from both sides. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
The agreement sets out priorities of a new government, including restoring economic stability, and calls for discussing land reform and Western sanctions targeting Mugabe and about 130 of his top aides.
It was also signed by South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, the mediator for whom the agreement is a diplomatic coup. Mbeki had insisted that dialogue — and not punitive sanctions — was the only way to deal with Mugabe.
Zimbabwe's leader of 28 years appeared nervous at the ceremony and shook hands with everyone except Tsvangirai after the signing. At a news conference later, he posed for journalists giving Tsvangirai a tentative handshake.
Head bowed, Mugabe stood between a beaming Tsvangirai and opposition leader Arthur Mutambara, never once looking directly at Tsvangirai during the hourlong ceremony and news conference.
For Mugabe and Tsvangirai, it was a rare meeting of two longtime foes. They last crossed paths at a 1998 Workers' Day rally when Tsvangirai was secretary-general of Zimbabwe's trade union federation, said George Sibotshiwe, a spokesman for Tsvangirai's party.
Tsvangirai became leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party in 1999.
In an Internet blog Monday, senior opposition official Eddie Cross predicted the agreement would bring "shock and trepidation" in ruling ZANU-PF party circles.
"It represents a full climb down by Mugabe and his cohorts made even more significant by the fact that nowhere does it mention that Mugabe is the president of Zimbabwe," said Cross, who is in charge of policy for Tsvangirai's party. Instead, it identifies Mugabe as president of the ZANU-PF party.
Many see a coalition — perhaps with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister or vice president — as the only way to lead the nation out of the impasse and begin reversing its economic collapse.
The central bank issued a $100 billion note Monday in an attempt to keep up with mind-boggling inflation officially set at 2.2 million percent, but unofficially much higher.
The note — enough to buy two loaves of bread — was immediately put up for bid on eBay, the Internet auctioneer. The seller put a reserve of $79.94 on the note, worth $5 at Zimbabwe's official exchange rate and just $1 on the black market.
Mugabe, 84, has been in power since his country won independence in 1980. For years, he was revered for leading the seven-year bush war to oust the white-minority government ruling the former British colony.
The turnaround came when Mugabe lost a 2000 referendum that would have allowed him to appropriate white-owned farmland without compensation to resettle black peasant farmers. Whites owned two-thirds of the best agricultural land.
Mugabe accused the farmers of backing Tsvangirai and set loose so-called "war veterans" who violently invaded farms, killing some farmers.
Most of the seized land went to Mugabe's ministers and generals and was left to lie fallow. Today Zimbabwe, once an exporter of food to the region, is dependent on food aid for a third of its population.
Mugabe last month banned aid agencies from distributing food, accusing them of helping only opposition supporters. Monday's agreement says humanitarian agencies must be allowed to help.
In the March presidential election, Tsvangirai garnered the most votes — but not enough to win outright.
Tsvangirai pulled out of the June runoff against Mugabe, citing escalating state-sponsored violence against his supporters. His party says more than 120 of its activists have been killed by Mugabe's police, soldiers and party militants since the March vote. Thousands have been injured and tens of thousands have had their homes torched or been forced to leave areas where opposition legislators were elected.
The United States pushed for a U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on Mugabe and his top aides for allegedly overseeing the violence and to force them to negotiate. But Russia and China delivered a rare twin veto of the resolution.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters the U.S. supports negotiations that lead to expressing the Zimbabwean people's will.
Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party insist he is Zimbabwe's elected leader, though the one-man presidential runoff is widely regarded as a sham. His party has said it is open to power-sharing — but only if Mugabe heads any unity government.
The opposition has said it is open to a "government of national healing" — but only one with moderate ruling party members, not Mugabe. An end to political violence is expected to be one condition of the agreement.