British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Mark Malloch-Brown has expressed serious concern at the lack of progress in talks between Zimbabwe's ruling party and the opposition under South African mediation.
Malloch-Brown told the British House of Lords that the prospects for free and fair general and presidential elections in Zimbabwe this March are dim as a number of major issues have yet to be resolved with accords put into effect on the ground.
"The clock is ticking, and we are moving towards the March elections without reforms agreed, let alone implemented," Malloch-Brown told the British upper house. "We are rapidly passing the point of no return in terms of what would allow free and fair elections at that time.".
He said the European Union has sent an envoy to the region to push Southern African leaders to become more involved in the resolution of the Zimbabwe crisis. He said the EU mission has maintained a low-profile, as European sources say they fear that the Zimbabwean government will try to scuttle the initiative if it is publicized.
Malloch-Brown said British officials are also worried that the domestic political woes of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who lost the leadership of the African National Congress recently to Jacob Zuma, have become in Malloch-Brown’s words “a distraction from getting to a point of closure” in the Zimbabwe crisis talks.
He said London is thinking about extending and widening sanctions if Harare does not institute reforms consistent with the mediation effort launched by the Southern African Development Community, known in diplomatic shorthand as the SADC process.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwean opposition officials and sources in Pretoria told VOA that the ruling party of President Robert Mugabe has been dragging its feet on picking up the talks, though Mr. Mbeki has indicated his readiness to help conclude them.
The sources said ZANU-PF has indicated it is not ready to relaunch the talks. A senior Zimbabwean official said they cannot resume until ZANU-PF's primary negotiator, Justice Minister Patrick Chinimasa, returns from his home in the rural areas.
National Constitutional Assembly National Director Earnest Mudzengi told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that there are no signs of progress on the ground in Zimbabwe in terms of election conditions despite the Pretoria talks.