LUSAKA, Zambia – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe received the loudest cheers Thursday at the start of a southern African summit where his country's economic and political turmoil top the agenda.
Many in the West blame Mugabe's policies for the severe inflation and acute shortages that have crippled his country, once a regional breadbasket. But the dignitaries' reaction as Mugabe was introduced appeared to reflect the opinion that the longtime ruler has been unfairly targeted — or at least a hesitation to criticize a fellow leader many revere as an anti-colonialist hero.
South African President Thabo Mbeki is leading a regional effort to mediate a truce between Mugabe and his political opposition and was expected to report Thursday on his efforts.
As the summit opened, Zambian President Mwanawasa, who is taking over the rotating chairmanship of the 14-member Southern African Development Community, praised elder statesmen who helped liberate countries in the region from colonial rule.
Mwanawasa also urged Zimbabweans to "maintain peace and stability at all costs, because the opposite will just push your beautiful country even further backwards."
Among southern African leaders who oversaw the liberation of their countries, Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for 27 years, is the only one still in power.
Officials with the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's lead opposition party, who are in Lusaka this week lobbying regional leaders, said Mbeki's mediation efforts were taking too long.
"We need for SADC to act quickly and decisively to avert complete catastrophe," Thokozani Khupe, the party's vice president, told The Associated Press.
While Mugabe's neighbors have long been reluctant to openly criticize one of their own, Mwanawasa once likened Zimbabwe to a "sinking Titanic." However, ahead of the summit, Zambia appeared to be toeing a more cautious line, despite Western appeals to regional nations to do more.
"Zambia cannot impose its will on Zimbabwe, just as Zimbabwe cannot impose its will on Zambia. But we can quietly whisper to each other our concerns," Mike Mulongoti, Zambia's minister of information and broadcasting, told The Associated Press.
Zimbabwe is in its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. Official inflation is given as 4,500 percent, the highest in the world, but independent estimates put it closer to 9,000 percent.
A government order slashing prices of all goods and services by about half in June has led to acute shortages of basic commodities. The economic crisis is largely blamed on the seizures of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy.
Hordes of shoppers desperate to buy sugar amid severe shortages stampeded at a shopping complex in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, killing a 15-year-old boy and a security guard, state media reported Thursday.
Government opponents say they have been subjected to police beatings and raids, and the U.S. and European Union have slapped asset freezes and a travel ban on Mugabe and his top associates.
Many in the region are also concerned about the destabilizing effects of Mugabe's policies, which have sent thousands of refugees into neighboring countries.
Sakwiba Sikota, an opposition member of Zambia's parliament who represents the town of Livingstone, says that Zambia's president "has a big responsibility" to pressure Mugabe.
Livingstone lies next to the famed Victoria Falls, just across the river from Zimbabwe, and has struggled to cope with a recent surge in Zimbabweans.
"All this talk of, 'We shouldn't interfere in neighboring countries' policies' is a concept that should be thrown out the window," Sikota said.