Regional leaders endorse Zimbabwe's disputed vote

Southern African leaders opened an annual summit Saturday endorsing disputed elections in Zimbabwe that extended President Robert Mugabe's 33-year rule by another five years.

"Congratulations to comrade Robert Mugabe for conducting peaceful elections," said the incoming head of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), President Joyce Banda of Malawi.

"We wish to offer you continued support as a member of the family," Banda said, to wild cheers from the audience at the start of the 15-nation summit.

A smiling Mugabe acknowledged the endorsement with his traditional clenched-fist salute.

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party said Friday he had withdrawn a legal challenge to the elections, claiming the courts would not be fair.

This removed the last hurdle to 89-year-old leader Mugabe's inauguration for a seventh term.

The SADC's observer mission for the July 31 elections judged the vote was free, but have not yet commented on its fairness.

The SADC will publish its report on Zimbabwe's polls during this weekend's summit, according to South African President Jacob Zuma.

Banda took over the rotational one-year chairmanship of the SADC from Mozambican leader Armando Guebuza, becoming the first woman to head the bloc since its inception 33 years ago.

The two-day summit is expected to be dominated by the political stand-off in Madagascar and the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a Malawian official.

Madagascar has been suspended from the regional grouping since strongman Andry Rajoelina toppled Marc Ravalomanana in 2009.

The SADC has been pushing the rivals to follow through on a roadmap meant to steer the island nation toward elections, which Banda hinted could be due this year.

The vote has repeatedly been put on hold amid controversy over the candidacies of the three front-runners, including Rajoelina.

Regional mediators have called for Rajoelina, Ravalomanana's wife Lalao and former leader Didier Ratsiraka to stand aside, but all three have refused.

In the DR Congo, a quarter-million people have fled their homes since last year when a rebel group calling itself the M23 took up arms against government troops in the mineral-rich but chronically unstable east.