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Southern African Leaders To Zimbabwe's Mugabe: Reform First, Then Aid

Southern African leaders meeting in summit in Lusaka, Zambia, have told Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe they'll organize a bailout package for his country but that he must first institute political and economic reforms, diplomatic sources said Friday.

That stern message contrasted with the standing ovation given to Mugabe, 83, by the Southern African Development Community summit when it opened on Thursday, and the summit outcome was of more substance than many observers had expected.

The summit communiqué said South African President Thabo Mbeki assured leaders that talks between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, were "progressing smoothly."

But SADC leaders urged Mbeki and the principals to speed up the process so that the general and presidential elections slated to be held in March 2008 "are held in a free and fair environment that encourages for a democratic outcome."

The U.S. State Department soon after issued a statement expressing support for the "initiative to resolve the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, including President Mbeki's mediation effort.." SADC's "engagement illustrates that the region considers the situation an increasing threat to stability and is committed to a democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

"We regret," McCormack continued, "that the Mugabe regime has not expressed a similar commitment. Its obstructive actions, such as a lack of participation in scheduled talks and statements arguing against the need for mediation, have undermined this important initiative." He went on to "deplore the Mugabe regime's continued acts of oppression" against civic and political groups and other segments of society.

The SADC communiqué said the summit instructed SADC finance ministers to work with Harare to come up with an economic plan to support economic recovery - though the document did not spell out the conditionality cited by summit insiders.

The Zimbabwean economy has been contracting for the past eight years and over the past year inflation has accelerated to an annual rate in the vicinity of 5,000% - the government stopped issuing official inflation reports several months ago. Chronic shortages of maize and other foodstuffs have worsened into an emergency.

As generally expected, the communiqué contained no overt criticism of Mr. Mugabe's authoritarian political rule or his government's incoherent economic policies.

But diplomatic sources said SADC leaders grilled the region's elder statesman behind the scenes, telling him there would be no bailout without serious reforms.

It not clear what such a rescue package would include, but sources said Harare was seeking a financial lifeline to fund critical imports of food, fuel and electricity.

Observers including Zimbabwean civil society representatives in Lusaka said SADC’s decision to refuse Harare a rescue package was a step in the right direction.

Zimbabwe Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s earlier comments to reporters in Lusaka that political reforms were not needed, did not help Harare’s case.

For perspective, reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyele of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe turned to Professor Sulyman Nyang of Howard University, Washington, and Program Manager Pedzisayi Ruhanya of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. The interview was conducted before the release late Friday of the SADC communiqué

Meanwhile, Zimbabwean non-governmental organizations at the summit complained that they were unable to freely lobby SADC officials, due to harassment and intimidation by agents of the Zambian and Zimbabwe security services.

Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Chairman Arnold Tsunga said activists were monitored by plainclothes agents of both nations who sometimes posed as civil society delegates, and that members of civic organizations were sometimes heckled in meetings.

Earlier this week, about 40 Zimbabwean activists were refused entry to Zambia at the Chirundu border post and handed over to the Zimbabwean police.

On Thursday, a National Constitutional Assembly member was arrested in Lusaka – though later released – for possessing what were called subversive materials.

Director Joy Mambenge of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development told reporter Patience Rusere that the harassment his group’s members experienced in Lusaka was very similar to the kind of treatment they were used to at home.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...