Southern African leaders have taken tentative steps towards an expanded role in the resolution of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis, observers concluded after the Southern African Development Community ended a summit in Lusaka, Zambia.
The SADC summit that ended Friday was tougher on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe than expected, as diplomatic sources said his fellow regional leaders insisted that he institute democratic reforms and economic policy changes before they would assemble an bailout package to relieve food, fuel and electricity shortages.
But critics said leaders headed by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, SADC's new chairman, offered nothing new in the way of solutions to the longrunning crisis.
Mr. Mugabe's peers were said to have grilled him behind closed doors, but in public they closed ranks, giving him a standing ovation on Thursday when he entered.
Though Zimbabweans are flooding into South Africa and other neighboring countries to escape dire economic conditions at home including hyperinflation and critical food shortages, the SADC communiqué merely urging Mr. Mugabe's government and its opposition to seek common ground in South African-mediated crisis talks.
The SADC leaders "encouraged the parties to expedite the process of negotiations and conclude the work as soon as possible so that the next elections are held in an atmosphere of peace," referring to general and presidential elections in early 2008.
The faction of Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change headed by MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai took issue with Mwanawasa for declaring during the summit that the severity of the Zimbabwe crisis was "exaggerated." The formation said it intended to "enlighten" regional leaders as to the depth of Zimbabwe's distress.
But the U.S. State Department voiced satisfaction at the SADC summit statement.
Political analyst Peter Kagwanja of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa, told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalyele of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that the Southern African regional organization has clearly toughened its stance.
Meanwhile, police in Lusaka twice arrested then released a Southern African regional officer of the Tsvangirai opposition faction, sources in the Zambian capital said.
Lusaka police arrested MDC official Nqobizitha Mlilo Friday for allegedly attending the summit without accreditation, released him later after verifying his credentials, then re-arrested him on Saturday. He was released within hours after his lawyer intervened.
Reached late Friday after being released for the first time, Mlilo told reporter Patience Rusere that he was not questioned about his credentials but about the activities of the Johannesburg MDC office, adding that Zimbabwean agents were present.
His attorney, Executive Director Arnold Tsunga of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the Lusaka police told him clearance would have to be obtained from the Zambian secret service before Mlilo would be allowed to leave the country.