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Zimbabwe to Overshadow Water, Sanitation Issues at AU Summit

Zimbabwe and the future of President Robert Mugabe will be the center of attention when he and fellow African heads of state gather in the Egyptian resort Sharm el Sheikh over the next few days for their semi-annual summit. But as VOA's Peter Heinlein reports from the summit site, Zimbabwe is a divisive issue for the continental body, where Mr. Mugabe is widely revered as a hero of the anti-colonial movement.

It came as no surprise to African Union officials when Robert Mugabe said he would attend the two-day continental summit that officially opens Monday. He is a regular fixture at these twice a year extravaganzas.

Some diplomats privately noted there was more concern over objections expressed by some leaders that this Red Sea resort town is not technically in Africa.

AU spokesman El-Jhassim Wane says all 53 African states are supposed to be represented at the highest level.

"The fact is, a summit is a summit of all African heads of states and they are all expected, as much as their schedules permit them to do so, to attend AU summits," he said. "So of course expectations is all African heads of state would attend. There is no surprise to that as such."

Wane and other African Union diplomats and officials declined to talk on the record about Zimbabwe, but several spoke privately of their eagerness to see the organization's newly elected leadership take action. Both Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who holds the union's rotating presidency, and AU Commission Chairperson Jean Ping are said to be working feverishly behind the scenes to determine a course of action.

But their options are limited, partly because the situation is so fluid, and partly because of deep differences among other African leaders. Many blame Mr. Mugabe for what former South African President and elder statesman Nelson Mandela called a tragic failure of leadership in Zimbabwe. But to others, he is not only a hero of the anti-colonial movement, but a senior member in a tight club of African leaders, many of whom have less than sterling democratic credentials.

To complicate matters, Mr. Mugabe made clear this week he would not accept what he calls interference in Zimbabwe's affairs, not even from the African Union.

Spokesman Wane says despite considerable obstacles, the African Union under President Kikwete and Chairperson Ping is taking an increasingly prominent role in seeking a solution to Zimbabwe's leadership crisis.

"The chairperson was in Zimbabwe in early May, he was in South Africa and Zambia and he is in continuous consultations with regional leaders and the AU is supporting the efforts of SADC to help Zimbabwe overcome the current challenge," he said. "We did of course over the past weeks issue communiqu├ęs expressing our concern at the increasing acts of violence in the runup to the second round of the presidential election."

Foreign ministers are already in this seaside Egyptian resort for pre-summit deliberations of a week-long gathering ostensibly devoted to the challenges of providing Africa with clean water and sanitation. Instead, however, it is shaping up as a stern test of the continental body's new leadership, as it faces a challenge from an aging and discredited, but still extremely influential charter member of the group.