Zimbabwe Agrees to Halt Land Occupations, Compensate White Farmers

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Zimbabwe pledged Friday to abide by an internationally brokered deal to compensate white Zimbabwean farmers for seized land, but denied all responsibility for the bloodshed that has often accompanied the takeovers.

The pledge followed Zimbabwe's agreement — under increasing European and African pressure — to a pact restoring "the rule of law to the process of land reform," foreign ministers of Britain and its former colonies, including Zimbabwe, said at crisis talks in Abuja, Nigeria.

Under the accord, Britain and other countries agree to bear the cost of compensating white farmers. The United Nations Development Program will work with Zimbabwe's government to pursue "effective and sustainable land reform."

"Believe you me, my friend, that is music in the ears of my white countrymen," Zimbabwe Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge said. He said the deal would guarantee "full and fair" compensation for land earmarked by the government for redistribution to poor blacks.

The deal commits Zimbabwe to ending occupation of white-owned farms. Illegal occupiers on farms that have not been designated for acquisition by the government would be removed.

A process will begin to provide land for landless blacks "who are on land that the government does not intend to acquire," Mudenge said.

The accord also commits Zimbabwe to broad political reforms, including guaranteeing freedom of expression and pledging "to take firm action against violence and intimidation."

Across Zimbabwe, ruling party militants have occupied more than 1,700 white-owned farms since March 2000. They have been spurred by a government campaign to seize 4,600 farms owned by whites and give the land to blacks.

The targeted farms make up about 95 percent of the land owned by whites.

At least nine white farmers and dozens of opposition supporters have died since June. But Mudenge denied his government was responsible for the unrest, saying Zimbabwe was committed to "rule of law." He declined to say what new measures, if any, would be taken to end violence.

The talks saw African leaders — fearful that violence in Zimbabwe could spill across borders — add their condemnation for the first time to that of Britain and other nations over Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's controversial land-redistribution program.

"Africa cannot afford another war, not least a racial war or one with racial undertones," Nigerian Foreign Minister Sule Lamido said at the session's opening.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's role in the talks was said by other participants to have been pivotal, with Obasanjo describing the accord to Zimbabwe as an African solution for an African problem.

In London, an official from Zimbabwe's main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, expressed skepticism.

Brian Bako said he was "very cynical about the deal, why it has come at this time after a lot of people have been killed and a lot of people have suffered" but "if this deal is what it sounds like, then we pray to God that it may be effective and be implemented for the interest of the whole population of Zimbabwe."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stressed the deal had yet to be tested.

"Ultimately what we have written on paper is not important ... it depends on how events unfold (in Zimbabwe)," Straw said.

The talks came as Zimbabwe has become increasingly isolated over the land seizures.

The European Parliament on Thursday urged European Union governments to impose travel and other sanctions on Mugabe for policies that legislators said had created "a climate of fear and despair" in his country.

Lawmakers in the United States have also debated imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe. The African Union earlier had come out in favor of Zimbabwe's government, however.

Cabinet members from the former British colonies of Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya and South Africa, as well as Zimbabwe, attended the talks.