Africa's top diplomat has suggested that leaders gathering at an African Union summit might force a solution to Zimbabwe's political stalemate.  A.U. Commission Chairman Jean Ping also expressed satisfaction with developments in Somalia, despite the fall of a key town to Islamic extremists.

African Union closely watching situation in Zimbabwe

Chairman Ping says African leaders are watching very closely the Southern African Development Community summit aimed at creating a government of national unity in Zimbabwe.  If the regional group known as SADC fails, as reports from Pretoria appear to indicate, Ping says the African Union summit beginning Sunday could take its own action to break the impasse.

"For sure we will ask SADC to make a report and the other heads of state and government will pronounce themselves on this, and a decision might be taken by the heads of state," Ping said. " This is what I think will happen if we follow the regular procedures."

Ping: power sharing impasse has created continental crisis

The A.U. chief says the lack of agreement on a power sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and rival Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change had created a continental crisis of a magnitude that the summit could not ignore.

"In Zimbabwe the situation for us is clear enough.  I told you we consider that if a country can solve its problems by itself, why should we intervene?  We leave it to the country if course.  But if a country cannot do it and a sub-region, SADC or West Africa's ECOWAS can help in solving the problem, we leave it to them," he said.  "We help them, but we leave it to be solved by the region, and if the region cannot, then we move to the African Union and the U.N."

Ping declined to specify what action the summit might take, saying that was up to the leaders to decide.  

Mugabe, rival Tsvangirai welcome to attend AU summit

He noted that President Mugabe has never missed an A.U. summit, and suggested Mr. Tsvangirai would be welcome, too.  But he said the A.U. accredits countries rather than individuals to the meetings of heads of state, meaning it would be up to President Mugabe's government whether Mr. Tsvangirai could attend as an official. 

The former Gabonese foreign minister also says he is not surprised at the fall of the Somali town of Baidoa, which was overrun Monday by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab after Ethiopian troops ended their two year occupation.  He noted that neither government forces or A.U. peacekeepers had been in Baidoa, which had been used as the provisional seat of parliament while it was under Ethiopian control.

"Since the beginning we were not in Baidoa," he said.  "Our forces were not there, and we knew the situation like that, the tentative [temporary] occupation of Baidoa might happen, and we shared this preoccupation with Ethiopia."

Situation in Baidoa, Somali also cause for concern

Ping told reporters Ethiopian officials had told him they were fully aware that Al-Shabab fighters would move into Baidoa as soon as Ethiopian troops left.  He also said Uganda and Nigeria are set to announce contributions to the A.U. peacekeeping force AMISOM that will substantially boost its current strength of 3.500 troops.

The A.U. chief says he is encouraged that forces of the moderate Islamist ARS, or Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia, had unexpectedly stood between peacekeepers and Islamists extremists who had tried to take positions in the capital, Mogadishu.

The ARS is currently in the process of joining forces with Somalia's transitional government.  The transitional parliament, meeting Monday in Djibouti, voted to double its size so ARS members could be included, and the Alliance leader, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed announced his candidacy for the country's vacant presidency.