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Zimbabwe defiant after pull-out

Mugabe has decided he no longer wants to be a member of the Commonwealth club.

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ABUJA, Nigeria (Reuters) -- President Robert Mugabe's ruling party railed at Britain and its "white allies" on Monday, saying they had forced Zimbabwe into a no-win situation which had left it with no choice but to pull out of the Commonwealth.

"Whatever our detractors and critics are saying, for us this is like an escape from hell because Britain and its white allies have turned the Commonwealth into a Zimbabwe lynching club," Didymus Mutasa, external affairs secretary of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, told Reuters.

The group of 54 mostly former British colonies renewed Zimbabwe's suspension on Sunday, demanding that Harare seek reconciliation with the opposition and respect human rights, prompting a furious Mugabe to carry out a threat to withdraw.

Zimbabwe was suspended early last year on the grounds that Mugabe, 79, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, rigged his re-election in 2002 and persecuted his opponents.

Commonwealth leaders said they regretted Mugabe's response, with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warning it would hurt Zimbabwe's people the most.

"It's entirely in character, sadly, with President Mugabe," Straw said. "I think it's a decision which he, and particularly the Zimbabwean people, will come to regret," he added.

Membership in the Commonwealth confers political prestige on an international stage for poor nations and some modest trade and aid benefits. Members see exclusion from the "gentleman's club," which highly values cordial diplomacy, as an insult.

But ZANU-PF's Mutasa was non-plussed by what he saw as the Commonwealth's "hypocrisy." "We withdraw our membership and they say we are wrong and we should stay, but stay suspended so that they can demonise our government," he said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard noted, however, that it was not the first withdrawal from the Commonwealth nor was it irreversible.

"Nothing is permanent," said Howard, who took a hard line against Mugabe. "You have to have consistent standards in these matters."

Talks on Zimbabwe dominated a four-day Commonwealth summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja which closes on Monday, causing the worst split since South Africa's apartheid policies in the 1970s and 1980s and dividing members roughly on colour lines.

Commonwealth leaders spent three days carefully crafting a face-saving declaration, which did not mention the word "suspension."

It only talked of the hope for Zimbabwe's return on condition that it engage in political reconciliation and stick to Commonwealth principles including respect for human rights.

Most of Zimbabwe's backers, including South Africa, declined to comment on its decision to withdraw, but one key ally, Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, told reporters on entering the summit's final meeting: "We are upset."

Once southern Africa's breadbasket, Zimbabwe now relies on aid to feed millions. Unemployment is running at more than 70 percent and inflation is above 500 percent.

Mugabe accuses Britain and its allies of punishing him for land reforms that have given white-owned farms to landless blacks, an argument that finds resonance with other Africans.

Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) applauded the Commonwealth's decision but said Mugabe's response was not in the country's interests.

"We congratulate the Commonwealth for standing firmly on the side of the people of Zimbabwe, and strongly urge the rest of the international community not to be bullied into turning a blind eye to dictatorship, genocide, murder and torture under the guise of sovereignty," the party said in a statement.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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