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Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai in gay rights U-turn

media captionZimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in gay rights U-turn

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has reversed his position on gay rights, saying he now wants them enshrined in a new constitution.

He told the BBC that gay rights were a "human right" that conservative Zimbabweans should respect.

Last year, Mr Tsvangirai joined President Robert Mugabe in opposing homosexuality.

The fractious coalition formed by the two leaders has promised political reforms ahead of next year's elections.

Zimbabwe is in the process of drafting a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum ahead of the elections.

Homosexual acts are currently illegal in Zimbabwe, as in most African countries where many people view homosexuality as un-Christian and un-African.

'Pigs and dogs'

Mr Tsvangirai told BBC's Newsnight programme that there was a "very strong cultural feeling" against homosexuality in Zimbabwe, but he would defend gay rights if he became president.

image captionPresident Robert Mugabe (L) and his Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (R) have a fractious relationship

"It's a very controversial subject in my part of the world. My attitude is that I hope the constitution will come out with freedom of sexual orientation, for as long as it does not interfere with anybody," he told Newsnight's Gavin Esler.

"To me, it's a human right," he said.

Zimbabwe's long-time leader Mr Mugabe - a practising Christian - once said gays were "worse than pigs and dogs", sparking international condemnation.

In March 2010, Mr Tsvangirai said gay rights was not up for discussion in Zimbabwe.

"I totally agree with the president," he said at the time.

Mr Tsvangirai's U-turn suggests that he now wants Zimbabwe to adopt a liberal policy, similar to that of neighbouring South Africa.

But he will face strong resistance from Mr Mugabe, who will exploit Mr Tsvangirai's U-turn to drum up support for himself in the run-up to the election, correspondents say.

It will be Zimbabwe's first general election since Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party formed a unity government with President Mugabe's Zanu-PF after polls in 2008.

Those elections were marred by widespread violence and rigging, with Mr Tsvangirai boycotting a run-off vote.

The coalition - formed under pressure from regional leaders - has stabilised the country, but tension has been rising ahead of next year's vote.

The two parties are yet to agree on political and security reforms to guarantee a free and fair poll.