EU says Zim poll peaceful, withholds judgment on fairness

Brussels - The European Union, which has eased sanctions on Zimbabwe to encourage reforms, praised Zimbabweans on Thursday for turning out in large numbers to vote peacefully but said it was too early to assess the election's fairness.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai dismissed the election as a "farce" after his rival President Robert Mugabe's party claimed a landslide victory that would secure another five years in power for Africa's oldest head of state.

The EU's verdict on the elections will decide whether it continues to ease sanctions on Zimbabwe or extends them.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton "commends the people of Zimbabwe for turning out in large numbers to cast their votes, in what were broadly peaceful elections", a spokesperson said.

"She calls upon on all parties to maintain calm and order as the results of the poll become known," he said.

The EU will await the assessment of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) on the elections and reported irregularities, as well as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission's official announcement of the results, before announcing its own assessment, he said.

Western election observers were barred from entering the southern African country. Regional grouping SADC and the AU had teams monitoring the voting.

One Western diplomat said that, although the elections had been peaceful, there had been some major failings in the electoral process and EU governments would have to reach a consensus on whether the vote was credible.

One EU government, former colonial ruler Britain, said it was concerned that Zimbabwe had not enacted important electoral reform before the vote and by reports that large numbers of voters had been turned away.

The EU imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002 in protest at human rights abuses and violations of democracy.

In February, EU foreign ministers eased sanctions to reward Zimbabwe for political reforms and agreed to lift sanctions on a state-run diamond mining company, the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation, within a month of the elections provided they were judged peaceful and credible.

A month later, the EU suspended most remaining sanctions on Zimbabwe after voters approved a new constitution.

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