An extraordinary summit of the Southern African Development Community lived up to its billing as regional leaders discussing the post-election crisis in Zimbabwe remained behind closed doors well past midnight Saturday without issuing a communiqué on the two-week delay in issuing results of the country's March 29 presidential election.
Observers speculated that the delay signaled a fierce debate between those reluctant to issue in effect a reprimand to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and regional peers who might feel that the time had come to set aside longstanding loyalties to the man who once provided a redoubt to South African fighters battling apartheid.
There seemed little doubt that South African President Thabo Mbeki was prominent in the former group: on his way to Lusaka he stopped in Harare for discussions with President Mugabe following which he declared that "there is no crisis" in Zimbabwe and suggested that inconclusive election results might necessitate a runoff ballot.
Mr. Mugabe was conspicuously absent from the summit, having dispatched three ministers in his place. A senior Zimbabwean official said the summit was unnecessary.
Regional leaders received a briefing from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose formation of the Movement for Democratic Change insists that he won an outright majority in the presidential election. Also on hand was former finance minister Simba Makoni, a presidential candidate and former Mugabe aide believed to have run a distant third in the ballot.
SADC Chairman and Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who called the summit on short notice, made clear in opening remarks that he, unlike Mr. Mbeki, believes the situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a crisis and requires regional intervention.
"SADC cannot stand by and do nothing when one of its members is experiencing political and economic pain. It would be wrong to turn a blind eye," he said.
Mr. Mwanawasa voiced concern that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has still not released presidential results two full weeks after the elections, and also took the high court to task for failing to address the matter with dispatch, leaving, as he put it, "our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters…in the dark" as to who won the election.
Even as the summit participants deliberated in Lusaka, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission announced in Harare that it would conduct a recount next Saturday of all ballots cast in the parliamentary, presidential and local elections in 23 constituencies. The announcement came as a blow to the opposition which has opposed recounts charging that the government has tampered with ballots over the past two weeks.
In Lusaka, Zimbabwean activist Jenni Williams, national coordinator of the Bulawayo-based Women of Zimbabwe Arise, urged regional leaders to speak sufficiently strongly to force the Harare government to divulge the results of the election.
Director Earnest Mudzengi of the National Constitutional Assembly, also present on the margins of the regional summit, criticized President Mugabe’s absence.
University of Zimbabwe Professor John Makumbe, often critical of Mr. Mbeki's "silent diplomacy" on Zimbabwe, told reporter Marvellous Mhlanga-Nyahuye of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that Mr. Mbeki stopped in Harare for instructions from Mr. Mugabe.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the international community was running out of patience with Mr. Mugabe, though he said world leaders are remaining careful not to jeopardize an outcome that reflects the will of the Zimbabwean people.
From Washington, Freedom House Deputy Programs Director Daniel Calingaert said his organization is optimistic the summit can point the way forward, but is also a test of the regional organization's capacity to solve problems and promote democracy.