JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Zimbabwe has released a South African woman serving a 12-year prison sentence for spying on the African National Congress.
The release marked a significant thawing of relations between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the South African government.
Odile Harington, 29, released Thursday after serving nearly three years of her sentence, was put aboard a special flight back to South Africa and received a welcome from President Frederik de Klerk in Pretoria Friday, a government statement said.
'The government is grateful that Miss Harington has been released and expresses its appreciation to the government of Zimbabwe,' the statement said. 'The state president will send a personal message in this regard to President Mugabe today.'
The Zimbabwean news agency, Ziana, confirmed Friday that Harington was pardoned by Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980 and remained a most consistent foe of apartheid among the southern African leaders.
'The president's decision was prompted by the general improvement in the political climate in southern Africa, including the cessation of hostile acts against Zimbabwe by the South African government,' Zimbabwean Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa told Ziana.
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, had been the target of South African destabilization efforts since the end of white minority rule in 1980, including scattered sabotage attacks by South African agents. At the center of the southern African region, Zimbabwe not only sheltered ANC exiles but allowed its territory to be used as a base for guerrilla attacks into neighboring South Africa.
While leaders of less prosperous southern African states, including Zambia and Mozambique, have welcomed moves by South Africa to patch up relations with its black-ruled neighbors and expand economic ties, Mugabe has remained publicly cool toward de Klerk.
The thaw began publicly last month when a parliamentary delegation visited Harare and held talks with Zimbabwean legislators and the South African government halted broadcasts of the anti-Marxist Radio Truth into Zimbabwe.
South African officals regard Mugabe as key to any regional economic cooperation to reverse years of hostility caused by Pretoria's efforts to destabilize its neighbors partly as punishment for their support of the ANC.
The Johannesburg Star reported Friday relations could further improve by a possible decision by Zimbabwe to lift a ban on contact at ministerial level.
Harington, who had posed as a left-wing activist, was jailed in Zimbabwe on charges of passing on intelligence about the ANC to Pretoria and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, the maximum for the offense under Zimbabwean law.
The sentence was reduced on appeal to 12 after Zimbabwe's Chief Judge Wilson Sandura took into account Harington's protests of sexual assaults and torture while being detained for 10 months before her trial.