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New U.S. Envoy To Zimbabwe Received By President Mugabe, Proposes To 'Build Bridges'

Incoming U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee on Thursday presented his credentials to President Robert Mugabe, later saying in an interview that he intends to re-engage the Harare government while seeking to promote free and fair elections.

"I expect to come in and hopefully build bridges with the government of Zimbabwe," he told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyele of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe shortly after fulfilling the diplomatic formality at State House in central Harare.

"I hope to open a dialogue at the uppermost levels of this government all the way up to and including President Mugabe," said McGee, who before being posted to Harare served as ambassador to Swaziland, Madagascar and Comoros.

McGee told VOA that after he presented his credentials to Mr. Mugabe, the president "gave us a long history of the relationship between the United States and Zimbabwe, one that he, correctly I believe, characterized as not very good at the present time."

Most observers agree that U.S.-Zimbabwean relations hit a historical low during the tenure of McGee's predecessor, Christopher Dell, who infuriated the government and Mr. Mugabe with unsparing criticism of Harare's policies and human rights record.

But McGee on Thursday defended Dell's confrontational style. "My predecessor I think did a wonderful job of making certain that everyone knew what was happening here in Zimbabwe," he said in an interview. "And the government did not appreciate that."

McGee said the U.S. government would look to Zimbabwe's national elections set for March 2008 as a litmus test of how serious Harare is about democratic reform.

He said the U.S. fully supports the South African-led crisis resolution process and will work with the Southern African Development Community to promote fair elections.

But for now, he said,"U.S. policy on Zimbabwe is not going to change - everyone knows what the United States stands for as far as human rights are concerned, and we expect to continue that exact same stance in Zimbabwe, unless we see a substantial change on the ground."

A top priority for him will be to oversee US$200 million a year in aid to Zimbabwe for humanitarian food assistance and antiretroviral drugs to fight HIV/AIDS, he said.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...