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Southern African Leaders Meet to Discuss Zimbabwe

A leading human rights group is calling on the African Union to suspend Zimbabwe if its government does not end human rights abuses and implement a power-sharing deal it agreed to last year. The call comes amid rising criticism of stalled mediation efforts by southern African leaders.

Human Rights Watch says the lack of progress in resolving Zimbabwe's political standoff is causing a deepening humanitarian emergency and a regional crisis.

The group's Zimbabwe researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, says broader African intervention is needed because mediation efforts by the Southern African Development Community, SADC, have failed to produce results.

"We would like to see the African Union step in to address the crisis and take it to another level," said Kasambala. "Because we think there has been a regional failure to address what we believe is actually a regional crisis."

Zimbabwe's deteriorating economy has driven millions of citizens to flee to neighboring countries. A cholera epidemic has killed 2,700 people in Zimbabwe and dozens more around the region.

SADC is to hold an emergency summit Monday in South Africa, one week after negotiations in Harare failed to break a deadlock over a power-sharing agreement signed four months ago.

The accord called for a unity government with President Robert Mugabe as president and his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, in the newly created post of prime minister.

It aimed to end a political crisis that erupted after elections last March. Mr. Tsvangirai won the first round of the presidential vote but Mr. Mugabe won the second round after Mr. Tsvangirai withdrew citing a campaign of violence against his supporters.

Kasambala accuses ZANU-PF of launching a program of kidnappings and secret detentions of its opponents in order to sabotage the power-sharing agreement. She says more than 40 human rights activists and MDC supporters have been detained and tortured in recent months yet this abuse has not been addressed by SADC mediators.

"Southern African leaders have not even mentioned their concern about what is happening in the country in terms of the political repression," said Kasambala. "So at the same time that we are seeing this humanitarian crisis the political repression continues and has intensified."

She says the United Nations and the AU should send human rights monitors to Zimbabwe to investigate the human rights situation as well as the root causes of the humanitarian crisis which she blames on the Zimbabwe government.

In South Africa activists led by retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu have begun a series of hunger strikes in sympathy with the suffering Zimbabweans.

At the launch of the civic campaign Wednesday, rights activist Graca Machel, wife of former president Nelson Mandela, called the Mugabe government illegitimate and said African leaders had taken too long to do something about it.

"Most of them [leaders] in this region, they are in government out [because] of our vote which was given by the millions of citizens of SADC," she said. "That mandate requires them to stop the suffering and the death in Zimbabwe. "

The MDC has expressed frustration with SADC's mediation, saying it favors ZANU-PF. Mr. Mugabe has threatened to form a new government alone if the MDC does not join in.

Despite the hardening of positions, both sides have expressed a willingness to continue talking and hope for a successful outcome.