Representatives of the Zimbabwe government and main opposition party were holding talks in a bid to ease the political crisis that reached new heights earlier this year with the arrest and beating of pro-democracy leaders.
Officials on Monday confirmed that the talks, held under South African mediation, started over the weekend in the South African capital Pretoria and were continuing, but refused to give any details.
"All we can confirm at this stage is that there are talks," said George Sibotshiwe, a South Africa-based spokesman for Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's administration was represented by Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labor and Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche, Zimbabwe state radio said.
Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube were representing the two factions of the divided Movement for Democratic Change, with South African local government minister Sydney Mufumadi as chairman.
Sibotshiwe said the Movement for Democratic Change respected the request of the South African government for a media blackout. He refused to say how long the negotiations would last.
"They can last a day or could go on for ever," he said, adding that the idea was to reach a certain undisclosed "milestone."
He said that South African President Thabo Mbeki was expected to make a statement about progress next week, ahead of the end of June deadline to report back to the Southern African Development Community, which appointed Mbeki as mediator earlier this year.
Mbeki has consistently espoused quiet diplomacy, saying that criticism from the West and sanctions have backfired and merely worsened Zimbabwe's problems.
He has said that Zimbabweans themselves must find the solution and that his main priority is to get them sitting around the same table together.
The country's problems mount by the week. Inflation is 3,714 percent and rising; power and water outages occur daily and shortages of food, hard currency, gasoline, medicines and other essential goods are acute.
Health and social services have crumbled in a nation with one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection. An estimated 3,000 people die each week from AIDS-related illnesses.
The UN said last week that 4 million out of Zimbabwe's 12 million population will be dependent on food aid by the end of the year because of drought which is expected to devastate the maize harvest combined with the collapse of the farming system.
Mugabe blames the crisis on drought and Western economic sanctions, but critics attribute it to corruption, mismanagement and the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000.
Repression is on the increase. Police broke up a pro-democracy gathering in March, beating and imprisoning its leaders including opposition party leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Since then lawyers acting for the opposition party have been harassed and arrested.
The opposition maintains intimidation of voters and ballot rigging have robbed it of victory in parliamentary and presidential elections _ warning that polls scheduled for next year will be no different. It also wants the repeal of sweeping media and security laws, electoral reforms and an end to state-orchestrated political violence.
But Mugabe seems to be tightening rather than relaxing his grip. Six suspects including a former army officer were recently arrested on allegations of plotting a coup.
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