Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Commonwealth split widening

LEADERS' MEETING Divisions on Zimbabwe are likely to be highlighted as a Sri Lankan bids to take over leadership of the grouping from a New Zealander

REUTERS , COLOMBO

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is shown around a mock-up market in the grounds of a local government headquarters in New Karu village near Abuja in Nigeria on Thursday. The market, staffed by a mixture of actual market-sellers and actors, was purpose-built for the event as part of a BBC radio soap-opera.

PHOTO: AP

A bid by Sri Lanka's former foreign minister to become head of the Commonwealth highlights a split within the group over Zimbabwe and is also worrisome for the island's Tamil rebels, officials said yesterday.

They said the challenge by Lakshman Kadirgamar to replace New Zealand's Don McKinnon as secretary-general would underline the split in the 54-member body over the suspension of Zimbabwe last year when that country's President Robert Mugabe was accused by some of rigging his re-election. An adviser to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is backing Kadirgamar even though he is in an opposing party, said: "The African countries want him, but no one knows how much support there will be.

"I do not know if it is South Africa behind this, but he should get some support from countries unhappy about Zimbabwe," he said.

Trade and AIDS will figure in the four-day summit that started later yesterday in Abuja in Nigeria but discussions are likely to be dominated by Zimbabwe.

The issue has split the group along broadly racial grounds, with Britain and Australia leading the anti-Mugabe camp and South Africa and Nigeria seeking a softer line.

One diplomat from a Commonwealth country said in Colombo that Kadirgamar may have difficulty getting widespread support because he entered the race only last week when many countries had already pledged support to McKinnon.

"It was a little late, these types of campaigns do take time," said the diplomat, who added that while some African countries were unhappy at McKinnon it did not mean Kadirgamar supported Zimbabwe.

Kadirgamar's office said he was not available for comment.

Kadirgamar, 71, is an Oxford-educated lawyer and international expert on intellectual property rights, and is now an opposition member of parliament and senior adviser to President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

He is one of the country's highest profile politicians, and as foreign minister for seven years until 2001 he highlighted internationally the violent acts carried out by the Tamil Tigers in their separatist struggle.

"Because he is a Tamil and doing that, he is considered one of the biggest enemies of the Tigers," said an official in the office of Kumaratunga, who also supports Kadirgamar's bid.

But four Tamil parties issued a statement yesterday saying Kadirgamar's efforts in trying to end the 20-year civil war were "dismal" and that his credentials to head the Commonwealth group of mainly former British colonies were "highly questionable."

Mugabe this week accused Britain, Australia and New Zealand of forging an "unholy alliance" against him and threatened to withdraw from the Commonwealth.

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