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Harare Delivers Passport To Opposition Chief Tsvangirai, But Deal Still Distant

After months of withholding a new passport from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean government has delivered the controversial travel document to the head of the dominant formation of the Movement for Democratic Change with a letter from President Robert Mugabe inviting him to join a unity government, MDC sources said Friday.

Despite the delivery of the passport and letter to Tsvangirai on Christmas Day in what looked like a concession from the Harare government under intense international pressure, MDC officials said there remain many obstacles to the formation of a unity government.

The United States and Britain have called for Mr. Mugabe to step down over the meltdown in the country where a cholera epidemic has claimed more than 1,500 lives in recent months and millions of Zimbabweans are counting on food assistance to keep themselves alive.

But neighboring South Africa has also come under pressure to lean on Mr. Mugabe to make concessions to the MDC on the composition of the proposed unity government if not subscribe to the Western position that Mr. Mugabe must resign his office.

Diplomatic sources said Pretoria strongly urged Harare to issue the passport, which became a highly contentious issue at an earlier stage of the current phase of the crisis, as Tsvangirai's lack of a passport was said to have prevented him attending a regional summit.

The issuance of the passport closely followed the appearance in a Harare court Wednesday of activists including Zimbabwe Peace Project Director Jestina Mukoko who had been abducted by suspected state security agents, in Mukoko's case from her home on Dec. 3.

Tsvangirai one week ago issued an ultimatum demanding the release by Jan. 1 of more than 40 MDC and civic activists abducted since October, failing which he would ask the formation's ruling national council to vote to sever negotiations with Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party on forming a government under a power-sharing agreement signed Sept. 15.

Sources in Harare and Pretoria told VOA that Mr. Mugabe’s letter to Tsvangirai was hand-delivered by South African High Commissioner to Botswana Milo Moopeloa. Tsvangirai, who has been based in Botswana recently, was expected to respond in detail on Monday.

But South African government sources said they expected Tsvangirai to refuse, adding that the Southern African Development Community is already planning another summit in January at which the regional organization would again attempt to broker a political deal.

Tsvangirai spokesman George Sibotshiwe told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the issuance of the passport should not be given too much weight as there remain many hurdles to the formation of a viable unity government.

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