- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said yesterday he will skip an emergency summit of regional leaders today in Zambia designed to end his country’s political crisis arising from the still-unresolved March 29 presidential election.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which claims to have won the vote, has called for a general strike Tuesday after the government announced a ban on political rallies. The Zimbabwe electoral commission, controlled by Mr. Mugabe, still has not made public the final tallies two weeks after the presidential vote was held.

MDC presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to join leaders of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Lusaka, Zambia, today. Mr. Mugabe will be represented by three senior government ministers.

Expectations that the regional grouping can force the longtime Zimbabwean leader to yield are low, according to Sydney Masamvu, a former top journalist in Harare and now a Zimbabwe-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. South African President Thabo Mbeki has largely shielded Mr. Mugabe from international pressure that he step down after more than a quarter-century in power.

“We in Zimbabwe are ready to accept any international mediation as long as Mbeki is not in control of the process,” Mr. Masamvu said on a Washington visit this week.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration has been in touch with SADC leaders and urged them to take a tough line on Mr. Mugabe.

The United States and a number of Western governments have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, but their ability to pressure Mr. Mugabe’s regime is considered weak.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said yesterday he was “appalled” by signs that Mr. Mugabe was using violence in the wake of elections in Zimbabwe, Agence France-Presse reported.

Warning that the patience of the international community “is wearing thin,” Mr. Brown said, “The Zimbabwean people have demonstrated their commitment to democracy. We, and the leaders of the region, strongly share this commitment.”

Mr. McCormack called on the Zimbabwe government to release the election results and to “cease using the tactic of violence and intimidation against those citizens who only want to peacefully exercise their political rights.”

Mr. Masamvu and opposition leaders fear that the Mugabe regime is delaying the release of the election totals to prepare a security crackdown and intimidation campaign ahead of a runoff vote.

Independent polls show Mr. Tsvangirai received the most votes on March 29, but it is not clear if he passed the 50 percent threshold to avoid a second round of voting.

In a statement issued on the eve of the Lusaka gathering, the MDC leader called on Mr. Mugabe to step down.

“He should recognize that he has lost and let me get on with making our great country great once more,” Mr. Tsvangirai said.

“This is a historic moment for SADC and a defining moment for Africa,” he said. “We can show the world that we, Africa, can solve our own problems and safeguard democracy and the rule of law.”

But fellow African leaders have proven reluctant to intervene, in part because of Mr. Mugabe’s status as a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence.

But those same leaders have been embarrassed by the 84-year-old president’s increasingly autocratic rule. Zimbabwe today is plagued by plunging health and social conditions, a ruined economy and the world’s highest inflation and unemployment rates.

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