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EU announces visit to Zimbabwe

BRUSSELS, Sep 10 – A top European Union team will travel to Zimbabwe this weekend to work on normalising ties, the first such visit since the EU sanctioned its hardline leaders in 2002, EU officials said Thursday.

Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson and EU Aid Commissioner Karel De Gucht will travel there after an EU-South Africa summit on Friday.

On Saturday and Sunday they will meet President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, as well as other ministers, officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations.

De Gucht said in a statement that the meetings would be "to discuss with the way forward towards the normalisation of EU-Zimbabwe relations".

Mugabe appeared to score a diplomatic triumph earlier this week after regional leaders called for sanctions against him to be lifted, a move that could strengthen his hand in a fragile unity government.

The call by the Southern African Development Community comes amid deadlocked negotiations between Mugabe and Tsvangirai on key political appointments and ongoing concerns over human rights abuses.

The weekend visit comes three months after the EU and Zimbabwe held their first official talks in seven years, with the EU vowing to fully restore ties once "sticking points" are overcome.

Apart from a resumption of national political dialogue, the EU wants an end to politically-motivated violence and for the security services to come under government control.

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It also demands that the rule of law be strengthened and media freedoms improved, as well as more transparency in the financial system and reforms to the central bank.

Tsvangirai and his rival President Robert Mugabe formed on February 11 a power-sharing government tasked with steering Zimbabwe back to stability after disputed elections last year plunged the country into crisis.

With the shattered economy just turning a corner, Tsvangirai set off on an international tour looking for assistance to help Zimbabwe emerge from years of chaos, which has seen rampant inflation and forced many Zimbabweans to flee.

His welcome abroad has contrasted with the chill towards Mugabe.

Both the EU and the United States maintain a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe, his wife and inner circle in protest at controversial elections and alleged human rights abuses by his government.

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