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Zimbabwe's neighbors to meet on unity deal

Southern African nations will hold a summit to try to break a power-sharing stalemate in Zimbabwe between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition that has prevented the formation of a government.
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, left, arrives for deadlocked Zimbabwe power-sharing talks in Harare, Zimbabwe, on MondayAP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fourteen southern African nations will hold a summit to try to break a power-sharing stalemate in Zimbabwe between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition that has prevented the formation of a new government.

Regional leaders debated the issue into the early hours Tuesday in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. Tomas Salomao, executive secretary of the 14-member Southern African Development Community, said the participants recommended holding a full summit "to further review the current political situation in Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency." A date and place were not immediately set.

An agreement signed Sept. 15 has stalled over how to share government ministries among Mugabe's party, Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and a smaller opposition group.

Tsvangirai accuses Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, of trying to hold on to too many of the most powerful posts.

Country of many ills
An agreement in Zimbabwe would allow politicians to turn their attention to the nation's economic meltdown, which has led to chronic shortages of food, gasoline and most basic goods; daily outages of power and water; and the collapse of health and education services.

Zimbabweans are struggling with the world's highest official inflation rate of 231 million percent. The United Nations predicts half the population will need food aid by next year.

Salomao said the ministry in charge of police — accused in widespread attacks on the opposition — was the main sticking point. Salomao said the planned summit would consider a recommendation that the ministry be rotated, with the two main parties — Mugabe's and Tsvangirai's — holding it for six months or a year.

The opposition has resisted such an arrangement, which could further complicate an already cumbersome power-sharing proposal. But Tsvangirai gained at least a small victory in getting his call for a full summit accepted. The opposition says only an SADC summit has the authority to pressure Mugabe.

Zimbabwe has been on the agenda of repeated SADC mini- and full summits, and the leaders have slowly but surely pushed longtime, increasingly autocratic leader Mugabe to accept more and more compromises. Several SADC leaders have shown growing impatience with Mugabe, and may press him hard behind closed doors at a summit.

The meeting was attended by Mugabe, Tsvangirai, opposition faction leader Arthur Mutambara and leaders from South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland. The last three make up the SADC troika, a special committee on politics, defense and security that recommended the full summit. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki attended as the mediator who brokered the deal.

'Critical opportunity'
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said prior to the summit announcement that Monday's meeting was a "critical opportunity" to form a new government based on an equitable division of power, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

She said Ban "remains distressed about the growing human cost of the crisis in Zimbabwe, in particular given the signs that the humanitarian situation in the country may worsen in the course of 2008 and 2009."

Montas said Ban was concerned about critical shortages of food, essential drugs, basic services and clean water.

A doctors group on Sunday called for urgent action to repair water and sewage systems to avert a cholera epidemic in upcoming seasonal rains. It reported at least 120 preventable deaths across the county this year from cholera. At least 27 people have died in the past month.

"The government has grossly underestimated the impact that infrastructure breakdown is having on public health," said the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights in a statement.

In a reflection of inflation, the main state daily newspaper cost 10 Zimbabwe dollars shortly before the power sharing deal was signed. Monday's edition cost 20,000 Zimbabwe dollars, the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents at the dominant black market exchange rate.

Veritas, an independent legal advice group in Zimbabwe that consults with the opposition, said in a statement Monday that Tsvangirai was considering asking for other African and international statesmen to intervene if the Southern Africa Development Community and the African Union failed to resolve the matter.