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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mugabe Issue Splits Commonwealth

ABUJA, Nigeria -- A divided Commonwealth prepared to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe on Sunday for violating the group's democratic values after a dispute that reawakened old colonial resentments in parts of Africa.

The 54-member group of mainly former British colonies suspended Zimbabwe early last year on the grounds that President Robert Mugabe had rigged his re-election and persecuted his opponents.

After last-minute brinkmanship between Britain and South Africa, which strongly resisted pressure to keep Mugabe out of the club, a six-nation panel charged with resolving the issue was expected to recommend Harare's continued exclusion.

A defiant Mugabe is threatening to withdraw from the group, accusing it of being hijacked by "racist" Westerners, especially Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler Britain.

The 79-year-old leader, in power since independence in 1980, has sympathy from a small but powerful group of southern African nations, which are lobbying for his country's re-admission at the biennial summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

The racially charged dispute has split the Commonwealth as nothing has since apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s.

It has dominated the four-day biennial summit, to the frustration of many delegates eager to discuss topics such as fair trade, AIDS and terrorism.

Leaders tried to contain the Zimbabwe feud early in the conference by appointing the six-man task force, split roughly between Mugabe friends and foes.

But the move prolonged the dispute, and Mugabe's threats from Harare to withdraw raised the stakes further.

An initial British report on the task force indicated South Africa had refused to accept the continued exclusion, while Canada said the meeting had ended on a positive note.

"There was no deadlock. The meeting is over," added an official from India, one of the six on the panel.

Mugabe accused Britain and other "Anglo-Saxon" countries of punishing him for land reforms that have given white-owned farms to landless blacks. His argument finds resonance with many other African leaders whose political lives started in the fight against British imperialism.

Many Africans suspect British demands for democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are just a cover for protecting white farmers and their land.

Blair said it was wrong to "muddle" that issue with questions of Zimbabwean democracy and rights violations.

"The vast majority of countries -- black or white or Asian -- are in favor of continuing the suspension because we can see that Zimbabwe is so clearly in breach of all the principles the Commonwealth stands for," he told Sky TV.

Thousands of miles away in Zimbabwe, Mugabe disparaged the Commonwealth as "a mere club" and likened it to George Orwell's classic political satire "'Animal Farm', where some members are more equal than others."

The six-nation task force was expected to map out moderate political steps for the ruling Zanu-PF party to take as a path to re-entry, such as engaging in real dialogue with opposition groups dominated by the Movement for Democratic Change.

"What leaders want is some pretty firm undertakings not just about what will happen, but when things will happen," Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said.