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HARARE - Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai signed a framework agreement yesterday which paves the way for fully-fledged talks on ending a protracted political crisis.
The two men signed a memorandum of understanding at a ceremony overseen by President Thabo Mbeki, the region's long-time mediator between Mugabe's and Tsvangirai's rival parties.
Mbeki said all parties wanted a rapid resolution to their dispute sparked by elections in March.
"It commits the negotiating parties to an intense programme of work to try and finalise the negotiations as quickly as possible," Mbeki said.
"All the Zimbabwean parties recognise the urgency of the matters they are discussing and all are committed to trying to complete this process as quickly as possible."
Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is also the chief negotiator for Mugabe's Zanu-PF, had said earlier yesterday: "The signing will take place this afternoon."
Mugabe met Mbeki when he arrived in Zimbabwe.
South Africa's foreign ministry said: "The memorandum represents a positive step forward in the ongoing dialogue between the parties as facilitated by President Mbeki, acting on behalf of SADC."
Chinamasa said: "Of course, the president (Mugabe) will be there for the signing ceremony."
An MDC member who asked not to be named said: "Yes, Morgan is going to be signing the memorandum of understanding (MoU) personally, but before that he is going into a standing committee meeting."
The signing of the pact comes after a series of meetings between Mbeki, the rival parties and officials of the United Nations (UN) and of the African Union (AU).
UN special representative to Zimbabwe Haile Menkerios and AU commission chairman Jean Ping, who met the parties at the weekend, had both earlier expressed confidence that the pact would be signed.
Menkerios said the draft, once signed, would clear the way for actual talks to take place.
The 14-nation SADC, which mandated Mbeki to mediate the crisis in March last year, said it hoped the talks would yield a result before a meeting of the bloc's leaders next month.
The head of SADC's politics, defence and security organ, Tanki Mothae, said: "Our hope is to see Zimbabwe's problems resolved even before the summit next month in South Africa.
"Our hope is that they will agree on a principle ... that talks will go ahead and all other issues that are provided for in the MoU should be implemented," Mothae added.
"It is our hope that they will live up to their commitments."
The MoU was to have been signed last Wednesday, but Tsvangirai backed out as he pushed for other players to be brought into the mediation process alongside Mbeki.
Tsvangirai has rejected the idea of a government of national unity in favour of a transitional phase leading to fresh elections, the release of political prisoners, the cessation of violence and an additional AU mediator.
Mugabe, 84, has insisted that the MDC has to acknowledge his victory in the recent run-off elections if there is to be any kind of power sharing deal. - Sapa-AFP