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Regional leaders: 'What Zimbabwe crisis?'

Leaders of the southern African region met in Zambia this weekend for an emergency summit on Zimbabwe's increasingly tense electoral impasse.

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Mr. Mbeki stopped in Harare on his way to the summit, met with Mugabe, and said there was "no crisis in Zimbabwe," a statement that seemed to take the wind out of the summit's sails before it had even begun. Mbeki's camp has questioned the very need for the emergency summit called by Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, an aide to the South African president told the Monitor on Sunday.

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Mbeki's preferred approach of "quiet diplomacy" on Zimbabwe has been criticized heavily by the MDC and outside observers. At the summit's opening, Mr. Mwanawasa – who once called Zimbabwe a "sinking Titanic" – took a harder line.

With Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai sitting in the front row of the gathered assembly, Mwanawasa said there "appears to be an electoral impasse in Zimbabwe," and called on both sides to put the national interest first.

He noted that the summit was "not intended to put [Mugabe] in the dock."

Western diplomats hoped the fact that Mwanawasa called the summit at all was a sign that the traditional regional deference to Mugabe was breaking down. Carmen Martinez, US ambassador to Zambia, called Mwanawasa's speech a "strong statement that we have a problem here," adding that the US government was hoping for small steps, starting with the release of the election results.

Mwanawasa, Mbeki, and six other heads of state wrangled deep into the night over the wording of a communiqué on the Zimbabwean situation, talking with Mr. Tsvangirai and consulting with independent candidate Simba Makoni by phone.

They emerged with a gently worded statement urging that verification and release of results be done "expeditiously and in accordance with the due process of law," and urging Zimbabwe to ensure that a possible run-off is "held in a secure environment."

The divide between Mbeki's words and Mwanawasa's words underscored what could be a growing generational divide among the region's leaders.

Countries like South Africa, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the "old guard," according to one Zambian government minister – have been more reluctant to meddle in Mugabe's business. But Zambia, as well as nations like Tanzania and Botswana – all of whom have younger leaders with fewer ties to liberation-era leaders like Mugabe – have been more willing to advocate intervention.

"The very fact they had the guts to actually hold this extraordinary summit acknowledges that things are not right in Zimbabwe," MDC secretary general Tendai Biti told reporters.

Compromises ahead?

In Harare, ordinary Zimbabweans are calling on the MDC and ZANU-PF to enter into serious talks to address the political stalemate. They also appealed to the international community to help facilitate dialogue that would break the political impasse.

"They should sit down together and agree on a government of national unity because the current political stalemate would further destroy the political, social, and economic fabric of the nation," says Pride Gwavava, a school teacher in Harare.

But MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa said the opposition party would continue to appeal to the international community to put pressure on Mugabe to release the results. He said it would be "unfortunate" if Mugabe disregards SADC's call to release the election results.

Mr. Chamisa said the party would not agree to a recount of the 23 districts as ordered by the ZEC. "How do we know that the ballot boxes were not stuffed by ZANU-PF since they are in custody of ZEC working closely with ZANU-PF? We are not going to agree to that nonsense."

A journalist who could not be named for security reasons contributed from Harare.