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Zimbabwe Crisis Talks On Hold; Debate Over Amendments Continues

Zimbabwean ruling party and opposition negotiators engaged in crisis resolution talks who were expected to resume their discussions on Friday have pushed off their next round of negotiations until January, sources in Pretoria, South Africa, said.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa asked to be excused saying he would be attending a weekend memorial service for his son, who died recently. On the opposition side, Secretary General Tendai Biti of the Movement for Democratic Change faction of Morgan Tsvangirai also indicated that he has family business to attend to.

Pretoria sources said the talks will now resume January 2, adding that when the two sides return, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, mediator in the talks on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, will seek to break the impasse that has arisen in the talks despite apparently significant progress on a number of issues.

The opposition says a new constitution must be adopted before elections are held, but the ZANU-PF team says there is not enough time, given President Robert Mugabe's recent declaration that elections must be held in March "without fail."

Opposition officials say ZANU-PF reneged on a promise to adopt a new constitution before the elections in exchange for support by the opposition for a constitutional amendment overhauling the electoral system passed in September.

Ruling party sources say their delegates will offer to prove their commitment to a new constitution by publishing it officially - though not implementing it until after elections.

Cape Town-based political analyst Glen Mpani told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the latest postponement is discouraging.

Despite reservations expressed by civic groups and some MDC members, ZANU-PF and both factions of the opposition joined forces in parliament to pass amendments to the country's security, media, broadcasting and electoral laws this past week.

But the amendments have come under fire from civil society activists who say these changes are cosmetic and serve ZANU-PF interests.

Though both MDC factions agreed to these amendments, some members of the rival formations are less than enthusiastic about the amendments, Tsvangirai formation spokesman Nelson Chamisa saying repressive laws should be entirely repealed.

But Legal Affairs Secretary David Coltart of the MDC formation of Arthur Mutambara the amendments represent a step toward democracy even if they fall short.

For a further discussion of the question, reporter Carole Gombakomba spoke with Coltart and Advocacy Coordinator Abel Chikomo of the Media Monitoring Project, who said he believes the opposition may have been snookered by the ruling party.

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