African leaders to debate Zimbabwe crisis without Mugabe

South African president meets Zimbabwean counterpart before Zambia summit, urging patience over election results.

Mugabe Mbeki 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mugabe Mbeki 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
African leaders hoped to find a resolution to Zimbabwe's deepening political crisis Saturday at an emergency summit in Zambia, but Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe refused to attend, underlining his growing isolation in the region and the world. Instead, South African President Thabo Mbeki, the chief mediator in the crisis, met with Mugabe for 90 minutes in Harare before the summit and declared "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." Official results from the March 29 election have yet to be released two weeks after the vote. Independent tallies suggest Mugabe lost, but garnered enough votes to force a runoff. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai says he won outright and has traveled around the region asking neighboring leaders to push for Mugabe to resign. Mbeki, however, urged patience. "There has been an election process. Everybody is waiting for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce the results," he said before heading to Zambia for the summit. Since the vote, Zimbabwe's ruler of 28 years has dug in his heels, banning political rallies amid opposition charges he was orchestrating a wave of violence to intimidate opponents. Tendai Biti, secretary-general of Tsvangirai's party, said the military had taken control of Zimbabwe and urged action by southern African leaders who failed to criticize Mugabe in the past. The leaders "must speak strongly and decisively against the dictatorship and against the status quo in respect of which our people are suffering, our people are being brutalized, our people are being traumatized," he told AP Television News in Lusaka. International pressure on Mugabe has grown since the vote. In his strongest warning to Mugabe yet, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Friday the world's patience with Zimbabwe's regime is "wearing thin." Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa called the emergency summit after Western powers and regional human rights and church groups demanded the election results be released. Mugabe initially was supposed to attend, but said Saturday morning that he saw no need. "I am not going," he said without explanation. Instead, he sent three hard-line ministers from his outgoing Cabinet, a move considered a snub to his counterparts. Tsvangirai will address the meeting, which might have prompted Mugabe's withdrawal. It was a rare move by Mugabe, who has regularly appeared at regional and international meetings despite international condemnation of his administration. Despite his absence, Mugabe's credentials as a liberation leader in the war that ended white minority rule in his country could continue to protect him from criticism from fellow leaders. At the last Southern African Development Community summit seven months ago, leaders gave Mugabe a standing ovation, just months after a crackdown in which police beat Tsvangirai so badly he had to be hospitalized. Pressure has grown on the leaders to take action this time and push Zimbabwe to release the results. "The very integrity and utility of the SADC is at stake," said New York-based Freedom House, which charts democracy's progress around the world. "The SADC's record of living up to its own stated democratic principles is unimpressive and this is an opportunity to change that." "It's about time that southern African leaders do something to avert the growing threat of a human rights disaster in Zimbabwe," Human Rights Watch said in a statement from New York. On Friday, Zimbabwean police banned all political rallies, a move appeared designed to foil opposition plans to take to the streets of Harare to ratchet up the pressure on the regime. In an interview from Botswana on Friday, Tsvangirai implied he feared returning home, saying he was a "prime target" for security forces. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change has held no major protests since the vote, but party officials had planned a rally Sunday, a day before an expected High Court ruling on their petition to force the release of the results. Party leaders would decide Sunday whether to defy the ban and call for a general strike, MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa said. Mugabe's government has accused former colonizer Britain, the US and other Western powers of plotting his overthrow because of his land reform program, whose stated goal was to redistribute the wide swathes of fertile land owned by the tiny white community to poor blacks. "This time, African leaders are supposed to do the bidding of the white West, that is to pressure Zimbabwe to abet regime change agenda," said a column in the state-run Herald newspaper written under a pen name used by government spokesman George Charamba. Ruling party officials have encouraged militants to invade the country's few remaining white-owned farms, saying they were trying to protect Zimbabweans from encroaching colonialism. Opposition officials say such attacks are a smoke screen for assaults on mainly black opposition supporters. International human rights groups say they have received reports of dozens of politically motivated attacks, widespread enough to suggest a coordinated program of retribution.