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African Leaders Discuss Zimbabwe Crisis Without Mugabe

Southern African leaders discussed Zimbabwe's deepening electoral crisis at a marathon 12-hour summit that ended before dawn Sunday with a weak declaration and marked failure to criticize the absent President Robert Mugabe.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who claims to have won the March 29 election outright, had wanted the leaders to press Mugabe to resign after 28 years as Zimbabwe's leader.

Western powers, the United Nations and regional church, democracy and human rights groups had called for the meeting to demand an immediate announcement of the long-delayed election results.

Instead, a summit declaration called for the expeditious verification of results in the presence of the candidates or their agents "within the rule of law." The declaration also urged "all parties to accept the results when they are announced."

Independent tallies indicate Mugabe lost the election, but garnered enough votes to force a runoff.

The summit promised to send observers if there was a second round of elections. The team it sent in March was led by a junior minister from Angola, a country that has not held elections since 1992.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa had called the emergency summit at 48 hours' notice. Afterward, his foreign affairs minister told reporters there was no crisis in Zimbabwe, echoing statements made by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy" on Zimbabwe has been likened to appeasement that allows Mugabe to continue his autocratic rule unimpeded. The Southern African Development Community that held the summit stands accused of pandering to Mugabe with disregard for its own constitution to promote democracy.

Mbeki said there was "no crisis" after he had to fly to Zimbabwe before Saturday's summit to engage Mugabe, who reportedly was not taking calls from African leaders last week.

Presidents at the conference rushed away when the meeting ended, refusing to answer questions. They left that to Zambia's Foreign Affairs Minister Kabinga Pande to declare "We listened to both parties, the opposition and the government, and both have said there is no crisis."

Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Party denied that was what it said, but the statements came from secretary-general Tendai Biti. Tsvangirai hurriedly left the summit four hours before it closed and did not return as promised.

Biti repeated charges that Mugabe has orchestrated a campaign of violence to intimidate opponents who voted against him, with allegations of beatings and burnings of huts corroborated by rights groups.

"We have a militarized, polarized situation," Biti told a news conference. "There is violence, intolerance, hate speech and vitriolic propaganda."

Pande said the rival parties had agreed at the summit that the elections were free and fair.

Biti said "We maintain that Zimbabwe is not capable of producing a free and fair election."

Still, he said, the leaders' response was "a major improvement" and that the economic bloc "has acquitted itself relatively well."

"The very fact that they had the guts to actually hold this extraordinary summit acknowledges that things are not right in Zimbabwe," Biti added.

Inviting Tsvangirai to the meeting was an unprecedented move that probably accounted for Mugabe's absence.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission said it would conduct a full recount of the presidential and parliamentary vote on April 19, the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper reported. Commission chairman George Chiweshe said candidates, party representatives and observers would be allowed to witness the process, the paper said. Mugabe's party had demanded a recount, even without results of presidential elections announced.

Pande said the summit could not demand election results while Zimbabwe's High Court is considering an opposition application asking a judge to order the immediate publication of results. The court, stacked with judges loyal to Mugabe, has dallied more than a week over the urgent appeal.

There was no comment from Mugabe or the three hard-line ministers he sent to represent him at the summit.

Mugabe's allies indicated Saturday's summit was part of a Western plot to overthrow him because of his land reform program, which was touted as an effort to redistribute the wide swathes of fertile land owned by the tiny white community to poor blacks. Instead, farms went to Mugabe's relatives, friends and cronies and the economy of the former food exporter collapsed.

"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 Saturday.

With Mugabe on the defensive after the election, ruling party officials have encouraged militants to invade the country's few remaining white-owned farms and some farms owned by black opponents, 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.

The summit was seen as a major test for the Southern African Development Community.

"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.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, of Ghana, warned the leaders they had "a grave responsibility to act, not only because of the negative spillover effects on the region, but also to ensure that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are respected."

An estimated one-third of Zimbabwe's population has fled the country as it descended into political and economic chaos.

Before the summit declaration, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Martinez said the U.S. was looking for "at least one step forward."

"If SADC cannot even get a state to release their election results, it's going to be very difficult for SADC," she said.

The release of Zimbabwe's election results ceased after results from legislative races held the same day as the presidential vote showed Mugabe's party lost control of parliament for the first time.

Mwanawasa, the Zambian leader, had opened the summit with a reassuring message for Zimbabwe's leaders, saying "This summit is not intended to put President Robert Mugabe in the dock."