Mugabe hailed as a 'freedom warrior'


Caracas - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, under fire at home and abroad for his intimidation of domestic opponents, was feted as a "warrior of freedom" on Thursday by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

The 80-year-old African leader, who is barred from traveling to the European Union by EU sanctions, was warmly received by left-winger Chavez after he arrived in Caracas to attend a two-day summit of developing nations.

"You are and always will be a true warrior of freedom," Chavez said as he presented Mugabe with a replica of the sword of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan-born independence hero of Latin America.

Former paratrooper Chavez is facing a bid by foes to hold a referendum on his rule, and is seeking solidarity at this week's summit from Third World leaders he sees as soul mates.

He praised Mugabe's role in the guerrilla war against white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980.

In brief speeches on Thursday, Chavez and Mugabe stressed the importance of throwing off "imperialist" control of their countries' mineral-rich economies and of increasing co-operation between developing nations.

The two leaders also witnessed the signing of a bilateral energy and mining co-operation agreement.

The European Union this week renewed a travel ban and asset freeze against Mugabe and leading aides, criticising him for intimidating his opponents and muzzling media critics.

The sanctions were triggered by the controversial handing of white-owned commercial farms to mainly landless black peasants and Mugabe's disputed re-election in 2002.

In 2003, he pulled out of the Commonwealth, which groups mostly former British colonies, after it extended Zimbabwe's 18-month-old suspension, first imposed over accusations of vote-rigging in the 2002 election.


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