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AU Considers Backing Power-Sharing Proposal for Zimbabwe

Africa's top peace and security body will hold a special heads-of-state level meeting on Zimbabwe during a continental summit this weekend in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. From the summit site, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports leaders are to consider backing a Kenya-style power-sharing proposal that would allow President Robert Mugabe to stay in office for another two years.

African Union foreign ministers argued behind closed doors Friday about how to respond to Zimbabwe's political crisis. Diplomats attending the meeting described it as heated, with ministers sharply divided over a proposed power sharing deal similar to the one reached in Kenya after last December's disputed election.

Diplomats roughly described the deal as giving opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai the post of prime minister in a government led by President Robert Mugabe, with the understanding that Mr. Mugabe would not run in the next election, to be held in 2010.

African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping said heads of state would take up the issue at a special meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council during the summit. He told reporters he is convinced the continental body can find a credible solution.

"A debate will go on the level of heads of state, and some decisions might be taken," he said. "There are discussions going on, on an inclusive government, which was called by some as the Kenya model, which mean that sharing power. This has been mentioned according to you by Tsvangirai, himself and the government is also talking about an inclusive government."

In a sign of just how sensitive the issue is, Chairman Ping did not mention Zimbabwe's political turmoil in his opening address to the summit Friday, except in a final sentence that did not appear in the prepared text. He said only that heads of state would issue an important declaration.

Afterward, he told reporters the AU was required to react to events in Zimbabwe in its role as guardian of shared African values.

"We are here playing the role of guardians, of these values, so when we see there is a violation of some of these shared values, it is our duty to react, and to call some of our members to order," he added.

Ping and several foreign ministers attending Friday's meeting reacted defensively to suggestions that the African Union's credibility could be hurt by a failure to condemn what the United States and others have called Zimbabwe's 'sham' election.

Senegal's Foreign Minister Cheik Tidian Gadio urged non-African countries to give the continental body a chance. He noted that the organization is only eight years old, and Commission Chairman Ping, a former Gabonese foreign minister, has only been in office a few months.

"The new president Jean Ping didn't even get a chance to sit on his chair and he's already in the planes running to Zimbabwe, between Chad and Sudan, trying to be a firefighter around the continent," said Cheik Tidian Gadio. "Please give a chance to the African Union. The crisis in Zimbabwe will not damage for good the credibility of this organization. The fact that today we spent most of our time discussing Zimbabwe and suggesting a way out, compromise and power sharing proves that the world is listening to us and we have something to do about this crisis."

The heads of state gathering in Sharm el-Sheik will be facing a host of difficult security issues. Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra says his priorities include efforts to bring a semblance of stability to Somalia, the recent fighting between Djibouti and Eritrea, and efforts to strengthen the joint AU/United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Diplomatic sources say Burkina Faso's foreign minister is to be named joint mediator on Darfur during this AU summit.

The gathering of heads of state is set to begin Monday. Zimbabwe's President Mugabe is expected to be among the more than 30 African leaders on hand for the two-day event.