"History is replete with examples that show that this (regional integration) is the only way to make a real progress as no country can develop in isolation," Mugabe told a summit of leaders from the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

The 85-year-old leader said more trade and investment allowed for greater circulation of knowledge and skills.

"Regional economic integration is our strategy of achieving this objective."

Once a dynamic country, Zimbabwe’s economy has contracted by more than 45 percent over the past decade as a result of political and economic instability.

The former British colony has been hit by food shortages and the world’s highest inflation rate.

A senior official said Thursday that COMESA was preparing a financial rescue package for Zimbabwe.

COMESA members meeting in the resort town of Victoria Falls are set to launch a customs union on Sunday to facilitate the free movement of goods in the region.

Among the heads of state in attendance are Sudan’s President Omar al-Beshir, who faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes, and ousted Madagascan leader Marc Ravalomanana.

Under the deal, the 19 countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) will impose the same tariffs on goods from outside the region.

Raw materials and capital goods will travel across borders without tariffs, while intermediate products will be taxed at 10 percent and finished goods at 25 percent.

Most countries have also lifted visa restrictions on travel within the bloc, with members ranging from tourist hotspot Egypt to some of the world’s poorest and most conflict-torn nations, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The COMESA region is home to 400 million people, with a combined gross domestic product of 360 billion dollars.

Mugabe took over the COMESA chairmanship from Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

COMESA consists of Burundi, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. (AFP)