Merkel puts Zimbabwe in spotlight over rights abuses

(Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged European and African leaders on Saturday to confront human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, putting the country's president Robert Mugabe in the spotlight at an EU-Africa summit.

Her comments brought to the surface simmering disagreement over human rights at the first such summit in seven years, where European and African leaders met to try to forge a new partnership between the two continents.

With Mugabe listening, Merkel said the world could not stand by while human rights were "trampled underfoot."

"I appreciate that some African states have tried to solve the crisis in Zimbabwe but time is running out," Merkel told the summit. "The situation of Zimbabwe is damaging the image of the new Africa."

Rights activists, who had urged action at the summit on Zimbabwe and Sudan's Darfur , praised Merkel's comments. Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotted the meeting because of the presence of Mugabe , whom the West accuses of violently suppressing opposition and wrecking his economy.

"Bravo for Merkel, she said what had to be said," said Reed Brody of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

In his speech to the summit on human rights, South African President Thabo Mbeki did not mention Zimbabwe, where he has tried to mediate between Mugabe and his political foes.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told reporters: " Zimbabwe is not in the process of collapsing, nor is Mr. Mugabe in the process of collapsing.

"Who can say that human rights are being violated more in Zimbabwe than in other African countries? No one can say that."

Efforts to hold an EU-Africa summit were held up for years since the last meeting in 2000 because of wrangling over Mugabe , who is seen as an independence hero in Africa.

Pressured by China's growing investment and influence in Africa, the Europeans aimed at the summit to agree an action plan to revitalize trade with the world's poorest continent and also to improve cooperation over immigration and peacekeeping.

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