Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa on Thursday opened a summit of the Southern African Development Community in Lusaka, Zambia, with a speech in which he urged Zimbabweans to maintain peace and stability in safeguarding their independence.
His remarks put across the message that Zimbabwe's fast-collapsing economy, which has sent millions of Zimbabweans streaming across regional borders, is of concern to the 14-member regional organization. But Mwanawasa, who commented in March that Zimbabwe resembled a "sinking Titanic," stopped short of criticizing the Harare government of President Robert Mugabe, who was enthusiastically greeted.
With the Zimbabwe crisis the focus of the summit and South African President Thabo Mbeki reporting to regional leaders on his efforts to mediate between the government and its opposition, Mwanawasa stressed the economic emergency, saying that SADC "will assist, where it can, to bail Zimbabwe out of its current economic doldrums."
The Zambian leader introduced the presidents of the SADC member states with the loudest reception given to President Mugabe, seated next to Mr. Mbeki.
But on the summit eve some doubt about the future of the mediated talks was cast by Zimbabwean Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, one of Harare’s two delegates in the talks. Chinamasa told Zimbabwe television that the ruling party would not resume talks with the opposition, which he said was trying to violently overthrow Mr. Mugabe.
But presidential spokesman George Charamba later said there has been progress in the talks, and Chinamasa backtracked Thursday, telling South African state media that Harare remained committed to pursuing discussions with the opposition.
Freelance Zambian journalist Betty Mwila told reporter Blessing Zulu of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the enthusiastic reception given to Mr. Mugabe by fellow SADC leaders indicated that his standing in the grouping has not significantly diminished.
Political analyst Glen Mpani said Chinamasa might have been testing the waters with his statement, speculating that ZANU-PF might want to pull out of the talks.
Mr Mbeki briefed the SADC committee on politics, defense and security on progress in the negotiations, according to the South African Broadcasting Corp., which reported "a sense that the mediators were moving closer to a breakthrough in Zimbabwe, and that the affected parties may finally be ready to enter into a dialogue."
Most observers have been pessimistic as to Mr. Mbeki's chances of finding a solution to the crisis, as negotiators for Mr. Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party have repeatedly failed to show up for talks, leading some in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to voice impatience and skepticism.
South African sources said Mr. Mbeki would propose to wrap up the talks in October.
SADC states including Botswana and Zambia as well as South Africa have expressed alarm at the flood of Zimbabweans washing over their borders as the economic crisis in their homeland sharpens under hyperinflation and chaotic official policies.
But Zimbabwean political analyst Takura Zhangazha said that although the impact on South Africa has been severe, he does not expect very much from Mr Mbeki.