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Mugabe Warmly Welcomed, Gently Criticized at Open of AU Summit


Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been warmly welcomed at a summit of African leaders, despite international concerns about the legitimacy of his re-election. From the summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports that in their opening speeches, Mr. Mugabe's colleagues offered only gentle criticism of the conduct of the election, and none of the man himself.

Robert Mugabe walked into the conference hall at this Red Sea resort accompanied by the host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, along with Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete, who also holds the African Union presidency.

Several African countries are known to be pressing behind the scenes for a strong statement condemning Mr. Mugabe's recent election. Some have agreed with the United States and European countries in declaring illegitimate Mr. Mugabe's swearing-in for a sixth term as president. But there was no sign of the closed-door bickering at the summit's opening session.

President Kikwete, speaking in Swahili through a translator, was cautious in his criticism. He congratulated the Zimbabwean people for what he called their success and avoided any direct criticism of Mr. Mugabe for what many have called a 'sham' election.

"We have also witnessed the historic elections which were done in two phases," said President Kikwete. "There have been a positive side, but there have also been challenges. The first-phase election was calm, but during the second phase there were many challenges starting with the pre-campaign period during the campaign but also during the elections. But now there are even more challenges that need to be addressed after the elections, which took place two days ago."

AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping is known to be working behind the scenes to craft a compromise between Mr. Mugabe's defenders within the organization and those calling for tough action. Speaking in French through a translator, the former Gabonese foreign minister commended efforts by region leaders to find a negotiated solution.

"Africa must fully shoulder its responsibilities and do everything in its power to help the Zimbabwean parties to work together in the supreme interests of their country, so as to overcome their current challenges," he said.

The strongest words came from former Tanzanian Foreign Minister Asha Rose Migiro, in her current capacity as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Migiro described Zimbabwe's political crisis as the single greatest challenge to stability in southern Africa.

"This is a moment of truth for regional leaders," she said. "Many have raised their voices regarding this issue. The secretary-general urges your excellencies to mobilize support for a negotiated solution. Only dialogue between Zimbabwean parties supported by the African Union and other regional actors can restore stability."

Speaking to VOA on the summit sidelines, U.S. Assistant secretary of State Jendayi Frazier called Mr. Mugabe's election 'an open expression of tyranny', and said the world would be watching to see how Africa's leaders respond.

"In the past, the issue in front of African leaders was how they were going to deal with governments that were coming to power through force of arms," she said. "Now they are taking another step to say how do you deal with presidents who inaugurate themselves in faulty elections, not credible elections, and that is going to be a difficult issue because there have been a lot of elections that have not been the best, that have not been free and fair."

A draft resolution on Zimbabwe being considered for adoption at Tuesday's final session does not directly criticize Mr. Mugabe or the election. It only criticizes violence in general terms and calls for dialogue. Diplomats say efforts are on to toughen some of the language, but it will be difficult given the number of friends Mr. Mugabe has made within the close-knit club of African leader during his 28 years in power.

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