A Commonwealth team is to travel to Zimbabwe as early as next week on a reconnaissance mission aimed at establishing the number of monitors that would be needed.
In another move that appeared to ease the crisis, Zimbabwe's white farmers and those leading the land occupations yesterday clinched a deal which they claimed would end the violence on occupied farms but allow squatters to stay on land that has already been seized.
The latest developments are typical of the bewildering speed at which Mr Mugabe engages in diplomatic manouevring: a hard uncompromising approach one day, often followed by a softer line the next.
The Foreign Office urged caution on the deal struck between the white farmers and those leading the land invasion: "Let's wait and see what happens on the ground." The British government's fear is that there was a large element of intimidation in the deal, with a hidden threat that the white farmers should not provide any support to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
The Foreign Office was more enthusiastic about Harare's decision to accept Commonwealth monitors. Britain had been pressing for two months for Mr Mugabe to accept European Union monitors but a Foreign Office spokesman said it would be satisfied with a Commonwealth team.
Mr Mugabe has still to set an election date. He promised last month it would be held in May but that timetable now looks unlikely. Under the constitution, it has to be held by August.
In African elections last year, the Commonwealth provided 23 monitors for Nigeria and 10 for both Mozambique and South Africa.
Harare's concession came less than 24 hours after talks between the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, and a Zimbabwean delegation, including the foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, collapsed in failure.
Mr Mudenge met the new Commonwealth secretary general, Don McKinnon, in London yesterday afternoon. At an impromptu press conference outside the Commonwealth secretariat after the hour-long meeting, Mr Mudenge was asked how many monitors Zimbabwe was prepared to accept. "The more the merrier," Mr Mudenge said.
Mr McKinnon expressed optimism that the situation might be easing: "Seeing will obviously be believing. Certainly, I am getting the kind of messages we want to hear."
In Zimbabwe, representatives of both the farmers and the "war veterans" hailed their agreement as a major breakthrough although it was condemned by the leader of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai.
The unspoken understanding underpinning the deal is that the farmers would end their support for the MDC and not allow any MDC activity on their land.
The war veterans leader, Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, blamed the violence on a "criminal element" among the veterans and insisted that henceforth those who committed violent acts would be dealt with severely. "All violence must end," he said. "However, veterans will stay on the farms but they will not interfere with any farming activities."
This is the second public announcement of an agreement between squatters and farmers in just over a week. Given the volatility in the rural areas, the most recent spate of political violence by supporters of Zanu-PF against members of MDC and the invocation of special police powers to ban political gatherings, the agreement was greeted with cautious optimism in Harare.
Insiders in the farmers' union said they believed the war veterans were sincere this time. But the private agreement to stop the MDC from campaigning on white land brought a sharp rebuke from Mr Tsvangirai. "The farmers and the farming leaders are wrong to be negotiating with outlaws," he said.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Movement for Democratic Change