SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe sought a boost of political legitimacy at a summit of African leaders Monday after his re-election was widely discredited as a sham.
Mugabe's fellow leaders avoided strong public criticism of him, despite Western calls for them to condemn the longtime leader.
The United States has vowed to bring the issue of Zimbabwe before the U.N. Security Council this week, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the AU to reject the result of Zimbabwe's presidential runoff.
Mugabe was the sole candidate in Friday's vote. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew, saying his supporters had become targets of brutal state-sponsored violence.
The summit should "make it absolutely clear that there has got to be change" in Zimbabwe, Brown said in London. "I think the message that is coming from the whole world is that the so-called elections will not be recognized."
African leaders were likely to take a softer line here, mindful that few of them can throw stones over election issues. But behind the scenes, some were pressing Mugabe to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai.
The 84-year-old Mugabe basked in the opportunity to show regional recognition of his victory, a day after he was sworn in as president for a sixth term following Friday's voting. He entered the conference hall alongside his host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a U.S. ally who has also come under international criticism over unfair elections.
In meetings later, Mugabe hugged several heads of states and other diplomats, said one African delegate who was present. "He was hugging everyone, pretty much everyone he could get close to," said the delegate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were closed to the media.
Jendayi Frazer, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, said she expected African leaders to take a harder tone with Mugabe behind closed doors.
"I would suggest that one not take from the soft words in an open plenary as a reflection of the deep concern of leaders here of the situation in Zimbabwe. I would expect them to have very, very strong words for him," Frazer told reporters.
In his opening address to the gathering, the African Union's head, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, congratulated the Zimbabwean people and AU mediators but not Mugabe himself. He called the elections "historic" but also said there were challenges.
A draft resolution written by AU foreign ministers and due to be approved by leaders at the summit does not criticize the runoff election or Mugabe. The draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, condemned violence in general terms and called for dialogue.
Most African governments — including regional powerhouse South Africa — have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe, whether because of long-standing ties to the Zimbabwean leader, because of his reputation as an anti-colonial liberator — or because they do not want to be seen as backing the West against a fellow African. Also, Mugabe has threatened to point fingers at African leaders and their own suspect elections if they speak out against him.
The AU's leaders were expected to gently urge Mugabe to engage in some sort of power-sharing agreement with the country's opposition, along the lines of a deal that ended violence in Kenya earlier this year.
Africa should "do everything in its power to help the Zimbabwe parties to work together in the supreme interests in their country so as to overcome its current challenges," African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping told delegates.
But some countries were taking a stronger line. In Nairobi, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the African Union should bar Mugabe from the summit.
"They should suspend him and send peace forces to Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections," Odinga said.
Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio noted that some Africans argue the West should "leave us alone and we be left to decide our own destiny."
But "then this is our destiny and then we don't want to talk about it. That doesn't make any sense," he told reporters.
One of the few African leaders openly critical of Mugabe, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, was not in attendance at the summit after he was rushed to Sharm el-Sheik's hospital on Sunday. His vice president, Rupiah Banda, said Monday that the 59-year-old Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was in stable condition.
"That is really bad luck for us," said Gadio, because the Zambian leader's absence could hurt attempts to put more pressure on Mugabe.
The African Union's own observers said Monday that the Zimbabwe runoff fell short of the continental body's standards, citing violence and noting that the opposition was denied equal access to the media during the campaign.
Tsvangirai said Mugabe should have no place at the summit and the AU now had a responsibility to deal with the crisis.
"Robert Mugabe is not the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe," Tsvangirai told The Associated Press. "He is usurping the power of the people. He has brutalized his own people."
U.N. deputy secretary-general, Asha-Rose Migiro, echoed that call for action in an address to the delegates, saying the Zimbabwe crisis is "the single greatest challenge ... in southern Africa, not only because its terrible humanitarian consequences but also because of the dangerous political precedent it sets."
Zimbabwe's government mouthpiece, The Herald, reported Monday that Mugabe "was prepared to face any of his AU counterparts disparaging Zimbabwe's electoral conduct because some of their countries had worse" elections records.
Zimbabwe is far from Africa's only experience with flawed elections. For example, the summit's host nation, U.S. ally Egypt, is often criticized by international rights groups for jailing dissidents to Mubarak's nearly 27-year rule, and recent elections saw violence as police barred opposition supporters from the polls.
Many world leaders have condemned Zimbabwe's runoff. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France "decided that this government is illegitimate" and called the re-election of Mugabe a "farce, a criminal electoral comedy."
He expressed hopes African leaders would be firm with Mugabe at the summit. But he also acknowledged that "for many Africans, Mugabe was long a great liberator" as an anti-colonial hero, which complicates matters."
President Bush has said the U.S. was working on ways to further punish Mugabe and his allies. That could mean steps against his government as well as additional restrictions on the travel and financial activities of Mugabe supporters. The U.S. has financial and travel penalties in place against more than 170 citizens and entities with ties to Mugabe, the White House says.
Bush also wants the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Zimbabwe as well as travel bans on Zimbabwe government officials.