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Southern African Leaders to Discuss Zimbabwe at Two-Day Summit

Leaders of 14 nations in Southern Africa are to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Tanzania to discuss the political situation in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, senior leaders of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party are preparing to discuss President Robert Mugabe's proposal to postpone presidential elections scheduled for next year. Southern Africa Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our bureau in Johannesburg.

Leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) called the meeting after police detained and severely beat several dozen opposition leaders who were trying to hold an anti-government rally two weeks ago.

The incident was widely condemned by the international community. Reaction was milder from African leaders who expressed concern, but indicated they preferred to use diplomacy to bring change to Zimbabwe.

The head of the Capetown-based Transitional Justice-in-Africa Program, Brian Raftopoulos, says this is because Mr. Mugabe still enjoys some support among African leaders.

"He is not someone who is completely isolated," he noted. "And he does understand that even if SADC are looking to find a way through they have to do so in a way that is seen as an African initiative."

Raftopoulos says the Zimbabwean president, who reportedly will attend the summit, is likely to seek sympathy by portraying the opposition as an agent of outside forces and himself as a victim of foreign interference.

But he says there is also a realization among some African leaders that this argument is no longer sufficient. Some African governments are said to be quietly urging reconciliation talks between the Zimbabwean leader and his opponents.

Mr. Mugabe is also facing opposition from within his ZANU-PF party. The party's Political Bureau and Central Committee are to hold meetings later this week, during which they are expected to discuss a proposal by the president to extend his term by two years.

The Zimbabwean leader wants the presidential election to be held at the same time as parliamentary elections in 2010.

But analyst Raftopoulos says the proposal is meeting with resistance from some party members.

"There is going to be an intense struggle within the ZANU-PF structures to contain Mugabe's ambitions, but I think that we are likely to see a very strong fight-back from Mugabe to try and get the extension that he demands," he added.

He notes that Mr. Mugabe has taken a hard line against his critics. And the government has announced that veterans from the war for independence, who are strong supporters of the president, are to be armed and incorporated into the military as a reserve force.

Opposition to the Mugabe government has been growing in recent years because of food shortages, rampant inflation, high unemployment and by what is seen as increasingly autocratic leadership from a government that has been in power for 27 years.