Zimbabwe rivals in attendance as key summit opens

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – A summit of southern African leaders opened on Saturday with Zimbabwe's political rivals in attendance, and as negotiators aimed to reach a deal to end the country's political crisis.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe entered the summit with the heads of other southern African nations, while his arch-rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, took a seat in the front row of invited guests.

The audience rose as Mugabe and the other leaders walked in, but the 84-year-old Zimbabwean president did not receive a loud ovation as he had at a previous summit of the 14-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Mugabe’s attendance at the meeting was controversial, with Botswana’s president snubbing the gathering after his government said it did not recognise Mugabe’s re-election.

Regional trade unions also planned protests and a group called the Zimbabwean Exile Forum (ZEF) said it was launching an urgent legal action at the SADC tribunal in Windhoek to dispute Mugabe’s invitation.

There was controversy even before the summit began, with Tsvangirai’s trip to South Africa delayed on Thursday after authorities at Harare airport temporarily seized his passport.

He flew into South Africa on Friday, after his passport was returned.

The crisis that intensified following Mugabe’s re-election in a June run-off poll widely condemned as a sham was high on the summit’s agenda, and there were indications power-sharing talks between the rivals would resume.

SADC’s troika on security issues agreed on Friday evening that a deal to resolve the crisis should be signed during the summit, a foreign minister who attended the meeting told AFP.

"We agreed at the (security) organ that the agreement should be signed within the period of the summit," the minister who declined to be named said.

The body includes Angola, Tanzania and Swaziland.

Mugabe and the leaders of both of the country’s opposition factions separately addressed the meeting, the minister said.

Referring to the Zimbabwean officials, the minister said, "All the parties appear to be agreeable (to reaching an agreement this weekend), but it’s a wait and see situation."

A South African official close to the talks said remaining sticking points in the dialogue included whether Mugabe would retain the right to hire and fire ministers and how long a transitional government would remain in place.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change is seeking a clause stating that if one of the parties pulls out of the government of national unity, elections would be held within 90 days, according to the official.

Power-sharing talks were stalled when three days of negotiations adjourned on Tuesday after Tsvangirai said he needed more time to consider a deal agreed by Mugabe and Arthur Mutambara, who heads the smaller opposition faction.

Tsvangirai believes he has the right to the lion’s share of power since he finished ahead of Mugabe in the March first round of the presidential election.

The ruling ZANU-PF party has insisted Mugabe must be recognised as president in any deal, as he won the June vote in which he was the only candidate after Tsvangirai boycotted the run-off.

The power-sharing talks have been mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is to update his peers on the state of the negotiations at the summit.

Tsvangirai boycotted the June presidential run-off after saying rising violence against his supporters had left dozens dead and thousands injured.

Mugabe defied international and regional calls to postpone the vote and pushed ahead with it anyway, handing himself a new term as president.

An SADC observer team gave the March first round of voting in Zimbabwe a largely clean bill of health, but the bloc’s mission said the June run-off "did not represent the will of the people."